Marissa Devault trial update: Lawyer pleads for life sentence in hammer-killing trial

PHOENIX - An attorney for an Arizona woman convicted of beating her husband to death with a hammer urged jurors Tuesday to spare her life rather than sentence her to death because she was warped by a chaotic childhood.

Marissa Devault didn't know her father, was sexually abused by a family member and had no adults who truly protected her, said Alan Tavassoli, one of Devault's attorneys.

"The world is not a safe place for her," Tavassoli told the jury.

Jurors will decide whether Devault lives or dies in the penalty phase of her trial that got underway Tuesday. If they don't order execution, she will spend the rest of her life in prison.

Devault was convicted last week of first-degree murder for killing Dale Harrell, 34, who suffered multiple skull fractures in the January 2009 attack in the couple's home in the Phoenix suburb of Gilbert. He died nearly a month later at a hospice from complications from his head injuries.

The jury concluded on Monday that Devault qualifies for the death penalty because she killed Harrell in an especially cruel manner.

Prosecutors say she killed her husband in a failed bid to collect on a life insurance policy to repay more than $300,000 in loans from her boyfriend. Devault says she killed Harrell in self-defense and told investigators he had physically and sexually abused her in the past.

Prosecutor Eric Basta told jurors on Tuesday that the case boils down to the choices people make in their lives and that he expects Devault's defense team to bring up abuse that took place at the couple's house.

"I expect that you'll hear that that abuse went both ways," Basta said.

The prosecutor was alluding to earlier testimony from Devault's oldest daughter in which she said she witnessed Harrell striking her mother. She also testified that Devault hit Harrell.

Devault rarely looked at the jury as lawyers made opening arguments in the trial's punishment phase. Instead, she turned her gaze to the judge or to the top of the table where her defense team sat.

Defense lawyers are expected to call some of Devault's family members to testify in the coming days.

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

But 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 businessman who is 20 years older than Devault and had loaned her more than $300,000 during their two-year relationship.

Flores testified that Devault wanted to either 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.

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