Court throws out ruling that barred public from watching 1st witness called by Jodi Arias

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PHOENIX — An appeals court has thrown out a ruling that barred the public from watching the first witness called by Jodi Arias at the convicted murderer's sentencing retrial.

The decision Wednesday by the Arizona Court of Appeals overturns the Oct. 30 ruling by Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Sherry Stephens and suggests that the previously unidentified witness may have been Arias herself.

Stephens had said the ruling was necessary because Arias' first witness, whom the judge refused to publicly identify, wouldn't testify unless the hearing was closed to the public. Some of the testimony by Arias' first witness was conducted in private. The Arizona Republic and three Phoenix TV stations — KPNX, KPHO and KTVK — protested the closure of the courtroom, arguing the First Amendment allows reporters to attend the trial.

Arias was convicted of murder last year in the 2008 death of former boyfriend Travis Alexander, but jurors deadlocked on whether she should be sentenced to life in prison or death. A new jury has been picked to decide her sentence.

The appeals court didn't offer an explanation in its ruling Wednesday at how it arrived at that decision. A more detailed ruling is expected in the future.

But the court suggested an answer to a question that stumped trial watchers: Who was the skittish witness who was allowed to testify in private?

The appeals court said Stephens order closed the courtroom to the public during "any testimony by Jodi Arias," though it's unclear whether the testimony was made by Arias herself or someone else on Arias' behalf.

"It underscores the importance of the public's right to attend criminal trials, particularly the testimony of a defendant in the sentencing phase of a capital trial," David Bodney, an attorney representing the news organizations, said of the ruling.

A call to Arias attorney Jennifer Willmott wasn't immediately returned Wednesday afternoon.

The decision to close the courtroom came after Stephens and the case's lawyers met behind closed doors at the start of Arias' case. Since then, Arias' lawyers have continued putting on their case, and Arias has yet to publicly testify at the sentencing retrial.

The Arias case has been marked by secrecy ever since the conclusion of the first trial, which turned in to a media circus as salacious and violent details about Arias and Alexander were broadcast live for people around the world.

Since then, the judge has held one secret hearing after another and barred the broadcast of footage from the sentencing retrial until after a verdict is reached. Arias' lawyers had argued that daily broadcasts of the trial would lead to defense witnesses backing out for fear of being harassed or threatened.

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