Ex-prosecutor reprimanded for appealing to jurors’ emotions

Posted at 8:13 PM, April 30, 2020 and last updated 4:45 PM, July 21, 2023

By JACQUES BILLEAUD Associated Press

PHOENIX (AP) — A former prosecutor best known for winning a murder conviction against Jodi Arias in the gruesome killing of her former boyfriend was reprimanded Thursday by the Arizona Supreme Court for violating an ethical rule at three other death penalty trials.

FILE – In this March 5, 2015, file photo, Maricopa county prosecutor Juan Martinez speaks during a news conference in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York, File)

Though the State Bar of Arizona alleged Juan Martinez violated ethical rules at the Arias trial, the state’s highest court didn’t find that he broke the rules in that case.

The court concluded that efforts by Martinez to elicit sympathy for victims and fear of defendants and his failure to follow court rulings had jeopardized the integrity of the legal system. Martinez was fired earlier this year after 32 years as a prosecutor.

“That Martinez’s negligent conduct did not result in reversal of criminal convictions does not absolve him of ethical culpability for potential systemic injuries,” the court said, noting that there had been a systematic failure to scrutinize the prosecutor’s conduct under ethical rules.

The prosecutor was criticized during the Arias trial for conversation among lawyers and the trial judge in which he profanely told one of the defense attorneys that if he was married to her, he’d kill himself. Martinez later apologized. The Supreme Court said the comment was inappropriate but made outside the presence of jurors.

FILE – In this April 13, 2015, file photo, Jodi Arias, left, looks on next to her attorney, Jennifer Willmott, during her sentencing in Maricopa County Superior Court in Phoenix. The Arizona Supreme Court is scheduled to rule Thursday, April 30, 2020, in an ethics case against a prosecutor for his conduct in the Jodi Arias trial and other cases. The State Bar of Arizona, which alleged Martinez had shown a pervasive pattern of misconduct, asked the court to reverse a disciplinary panel’s finding favorable to Juan Martinez. (Mark Henle/The Arizona Republic via AP, Pool, File)

In the case that attracted worldwide headlines, Arias was convicted of first-degree murder in the 2008 killing of her former boyfriend, Travis Alexander, in Mesa, Arizona. She is serving life in prison without the possibility of release.

Scott Rhodes, an attorney representing Martinez, didn’t immediately return a phone call and email Thursday seeking comment. Martinez is appealing his firing.

In a separate pending ethics case, Martinez is accused of leaking another juror’s identity in the Arias case to a blogger with whom Martinez was having a sexual relationship and lying to investigators about it.

He also is accused of frequently staring at a court reporter during the Arias trial and making comments about her appearance that made her feel uncomfortable.

In the same ethics case, a disciplinary judge threw out ethical allegations that Martinez made sexually inappropriate comments to female clerks in his office and had inappropriate contact with a woman who had been dismissed from Arias’ jury and later texted nude photos of herself to Martinez. The Supreme Court said it would hear an appeal of that ruling.

In Thursday’s opinion, the court said Martinez should have been aware at the 2005 murder trial of Cory Morris that case law barred prosecutors from appealing to the fears or passions of jurors.

At that trial, he asked two jurors whether they would enjoy being choked with a necktie, as Morris was accused of doing with one victim. “Are you going to like that?” Martinez asked. “Going to feel real good when you can’t breathe?”

Yet, four years after the Morris trial, Martinez appealed again to the emotions of jurors at the murder trial of Michael Gallardo by saying the victim’s father would never be able to speak to his son again, the Supreme Court said.

The court said Martinez disregarded the prohibition against emotional pleas to jurors yet again at the 2012 murder trial of Shawn Lynch when Martinez asked jurors to put themselves in the place of having their throats slit.

The Supreme Court disagreed with Martinez’s argument that because the incidents happened years ago they could not conclude ethical misconduct. “If anything, what is notable about the age of the claims is the systematic failure to timely scrutinize Martinez’s conduct under the ethical rules,” the court wrote.