Marissa Devault trial: Jury mulls whether woman is eligible for execution

PHOENIX - A prosecutor urged a jury on Wednesday to find that an Arizona woman convicted of killing her husband with a hammer is eligible for the death penalty, saying the 2009 crime was carried out in an especially cruel manner for the purpose of collecting life insurance.

The jury that convicted Marissa Suzanne Devault (dev-WAH') of first-degree murder is considering whether there were  "aggravating factors" in the death of Dale Harrell that would make her eligible for the death penalty.

If such factors are found, jurors will be asked to consider whether she should be sentenced to life in prison or to death. But if no such factors are found, a judge will sentence Devault to either the rest of her life in prison or life in prison with the possibility of release after 25 years.

Jurors, who didn't reach a verdict on the death-penalty eligibility question after one day of deliberations, will continue considering the issue Thursday.

Devault whispered to her defense team and often looked away from the jury as lawyers argued over whether she should qualify for the death penalty.

Prosecutor Michelle Arino said Devault killed Harrell for insurance money, adding that Devault wasn't paying household bills and let her mortgage lapse yet still made sure to pay a life insurance policy on her husband.

Arino said Devault struck her husband in the head with the hammer at least five times and left a fist-sized hole in her husband's head. The prosecutor also said that Devault had access to two guns but chose instead to use a hammer.

"She wanted him to know what it felt like," Arino said. "She wanted him to experience pain."

Alan Tavassoli, one of Devault's attorneys, said the argument that the killing was carried out to collect insurance money is undermined by the fact that one of the two policies in question covered only accidental deaths -- and Harrell's death wasn't an accident. "There is no way she could have gotten any money," Tavassoli said of the one policy, adding that his client never filed a claim.

Tavassoli also said if his client's aim was to be especially cruel to her husband, as prosecutors allege, then why did she strike him with the ball of the hammer, rather than with its claw, which would have inflicted more pain and damage.

If jurors find Devault is eligible for the death penalty, attorneys on both sides will make arguments to jurors on Thursday over whether she should be imprisoned or executed.

Such a penalty portion of the trial is expected to stretch into next week and include appearances from Devault's mother and grandmother, both of whom will testify on her behalf. Some of Devault's daughters also have written letters that are expected to be read in court.

Prosecutors contend that the attack on Harrell was premeditated and say Devault, 36, gave conflicting accounts of her husband's death. Harrell, 34, suffered multiple skull fractures in the January 2009 attack at the couple's home in the Phoenix suburb of Gilbert. He died nearly a month later at a hospice because of complications from his head injuries.

Devault initially told investigators that her husband attacked her while she was asleep and choked her until she was unconscious. She also told police that when she woke up, she saw another man who lived at their home beating Harrell with a hammer.

But authorities say bloodstain patterns showed Harrell was alone in the bed at the time of the attack and that bloodstains on Devault's clothes were consistent with a person swinging an object repeatedly over his or her head.

Investigators say Devault later confessed to attacking her husband, saying she pummeled him in a rage as he slept after he sexually assaulted her.

The key prosecution witness was Devault's former boyfriend, Allen Flores, a Yale University-educated management consultant who is 20 years older than Devault and had loaned her $300,000 during their two-year relationship.

Flores testified that Devault wanted to hire someone to kill Harrell or kill him herself and tell police he tried to rape her after a night of drinking.

Devault's attorneys attacked Flores' credibility, noting he was given an immunity agreement on child-pornography allegations in exchange for his testimony. The child pornography was found on Flores' computer during a search that was part of the murder investigation, authorities said.

Flores also testified that he once feared Devault would harm him, but he said that concern lifted after she was arrested. He went on to bail her out of jail, get her a lawyer and resume their intimate relationship.

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