Juror: DeVault’s three children saved her life
The Republic | azcentral.com
April 30, 2014
Marissa DeVault's children saved her life.
DeVault had certainly plotted the murder of her husband, Dale Harrell. She had taken out insurance policies on him, talked to her lover about having him killed, asked an ex-lover to "take care of him," had told people he was already dead.
And ultimately, she confessed to caving in his head with a claw hammer in January 2009 in the bedroom of their Gilbert home.
Her trial began in early February in Maricopa County Superior Court. DeVault claimed that Harrell was abusive and that she killed him in self-defense. Prosecutors paraded friends and neighbors to the witness stand to say they had never seen Harrell raise a hand against her.
But then their oldest daughter took the stand in late March.
"It happened fairly frequently," Rhiannon-Skye DeVault Harrell, 18, told the jury as she detailed the beatings. Rhiannon testified again during the sentencing phase of the trial, and so did her two younger sisters.
It was not enough to persuade jurors to acquit DeVault, or to find her guilty of the lesser crime of second-degree murder. On April 8, DeVault, 36, was found guilty of first-degree murder. A week later, the jury determined that the murder was especially cruel, qualifying DeVault for the death penalty.
But the testimony affected the jury members as they pondered whether DeVault, 36, should spend her life in prison or take a one-way trip to death row.
On Wednesday, after three days of deliberations, the jury chose life.
On June 6, after hearing from the victims and DeVault's family, which in this case are the same people, Judge Roland Steinle will decide whether DeVault gets natural life in prison or if she will have a chance for release after 25 years.
The children swayed the jury.
"I absolutely think they did," said juror JoAnn Verdun, 33, of Peoria. "It was a big part of my experience and that of others."
Rhiannon was relieved.
"When you grow up with this kind of thing, you get used to bad news," she told The Arizona Republic on Wednesday after the verdict. "Slightly less than bad news is really good news. Sometimes not losing is the same as winning."
Not everyone agreed.
Harrell's cousin, Becky Mott, of Gilbert, told The Republic, "I wanted the death penalty. I didn't want her to have any freedom at all. I wanted her to have solitary confinement."
But Amy Dewey, of Tempe, who was friends with both DeVault and Harrell and once lived in their house, had mixed emotions.
Dewey attended nearly every day of the trial.
"When I first started coming, I was so angry. I wanted the death penalty," she said. "But now, I'm hoping for life as long as there's no chance of release."
Verdun, the juror, had a similar change of thinking. When she came into the trial, Verdun says, she believed in the death penalty.
"I no longer think that death is a logical penalty — in any case," she said.
It was a brutal murder.
When police responded to DeVault's 911 call at 2:45 a.m. on Jan. 14, 2009, they found her hysterical and covered with blood outside the Gilbert home she shared with Harrell, the children and DeVault's friend, Stan Cook.
Harrell, 34, was upstairs on the floor next to his blood-soaked bed, writhing and thrashing, with the right side of his face and head caved in. Cook, had apparently taken the hammer away from her. Harrell died three weeks later.
Police coaxed a confession out of DeVault on the morning of the attack. She claimed that she killed Harrell in self-defense because he had raped and choked her and had abused her for years.
DeVault was bailed out of jail by her lover, Allen Flores, whom she had met two years earlier on a website that helped women meet "sugar daddies."
But then DeVault changed her story: She suddenly claimed that Cook, who has brain damage that seriously impairs his memory, had killed Harrell while defending her. Flores helped out by editing Cook's confession letter.
Police did not buy the new story. The prosecution claimed that DeVault killed Harrell to collect on insurance policies she had taken out on him.
The details were sordid. During a forensic examination of Flores' computer, a specialist hired by the defense uncovered child pornography. Flores has not been prosecuted for the pornography or for his assistance to DeVault before and after the murder. Instead, he was granted limited immunity by both the Maricopa County Attorney's Office and the U.S. attorney in Phoenix, though County Attorney Bill Montgomery avers that he could still be prosecuted. In fact, the prosecutors defended Flores by trying to have the pornography precluded from evidence, claiming that the defense had violated his Fourth Amendment rights against illegal government search and seizure.
Flores became the principal witness establishing DeVault's premeditation in the murder. On the witness stand, Flores told how he had lent more than $360,000 to DeVault, money she told him she would pay back from trust funds and insurance monies she was due.
She told friends and family that Flores was her dead stepfather's gay lover, even though her stepfather was neither gay nor dead. And Flores isn't gay. She told Flores on one occasion that Cook already had killed Harrell and on another that she would have Harrell killed while the two stayed at a casino hotel.
Another of DeVault's former lovers also testified that DeVault had approached him to "take care of" her husband. He refused.
The trial was tumultuous. Superior Court Judge Roland Steinle frequently sent the jury out of the courtroom to reprimand the prosecutors and defense lawyers for their tactics.
He scolded the defense for arranging a telephone conference with one of DeVault's daughters despite a court order and for trying to introduce a PowerPoint display without prior notice.
He scolded the prosecutors for trying to embarrass witnesses with sexual details.
The jurors took a week to come back with a guilty verdict. They refused to agree that DeVault had committed the murder for monetary gain, even though the prosecution based its case on DeVault killing Harrell for insurance money.
"There was too much circumstantial evidence," Verdun said.
Instead, the jury settled on the more vague aggravator that the murder was especially cruel.
DeVault seemed optimistic as she waited for the jury's decision on Wednesday. She was dressed in a black blazer, with her auburn hair pulled into a ponytail that reached most of the way down her back. She gasped and cried and smiled and patted her attorney on the arm after the verdict.
Mott sat with her husband and Dewey in the back row. DeVault's mother and daughters did not attend.
Dewey was reflective after the verdict.
"We were friends," she said of DeVault. "There were times (during the trial) when I felt sorry for the person who used to be my friend — not the person who was manipulative, but the one who used to be my friend."
DeVault's mother, Samantha Carlson, was driving Rhiannon to work when she was reached for comment.
"I am grateful and relieved because I don't want the children to have any misassigned guilt for not speaking well enough when they look back on this," Carlson said.
Rhiannon got to the point.
"If she had gotten the death penalty, I would have been two for two on parents," she said. "She is going to get life now, so I'm at one and a half right now."
Juror JoAnn Verdun went home and posted on Facebook.
"At the beginning, I was sitting across from a monster who killed her husband for money," she wrote. "At the end, I was sitting across from a human being. I voted for life because her children should have the right to a parent, if they choose, at 18. When an 11-year-old tells you, 'I know why my mom did it, but two parents are still better than one,' I couldn't vote to take away another one."