Meet the DA Who Has Been Accused of Sexual Misconduct That Affected a Murder Trial
In the era of #MeToo, can we hold law enforcement officials accountable?
In June 2008, Travis Alexander, a 30-year-old salesman, fell off the radar, not answering calls and missing important work meetings. After a few days, a group of friends went to his home in the suburbs of Mesa, Arizona, to check on him. They found his mutilated body in the shower. “We think he’s dead, there’s lots of blood,” one of his friends frantically told the 911 dispatcher. “There’s blood in his bedroom, behind the door and all over,” she said. It was a gruesome scene: Alexander had been stabbed almost 30 times, his throat had been slit, and he had been shot in the head. By the time his friends found him, he had been dead for five days.
On July 9, exactly one month after Alexander was found, his ex-girlfriend Jodi Arias was charged with first-degree murder. Initially, Arias insisted she didn’t do it. “No jury is going to convict me … because I’m innocent and you can mark my words on that one,” she told “Inside Edition.” She swore she hadn’t seen Alexander in two months. But her story changed and then changed again. Eventually she admitted killing Alexander, but insisted it was self-defense. Her trial made national headlines, largely because of Arias, a young brunette woman the media breathlessly described as “beautiful,” “lovely,” “attractive,” and “soft-spoken.”
The case was tried by Juan Martinez, a star prosecutor in the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office. Martinez had handled some of the county’s most prominent cases throughout his career, but the Arias trial was big enough to eclipse all of them.
Martinez was known in Maricopa for being aggressive, charming, and playing fast and loose with the rules. Phoenix magazine described him as “the most reviled and revered person at the Maricopa County Courthouse.” He is one of the few prosecutors who has what could reasonably be called a fan base — the Juan Martinez Prosecutor Support Page on Facebook has over 13,000 members, and is filled with praise for Martinez and disdain for defendants and their lawyers. There are no detractors here, just people calling Martinez “Mr juanderful,” “a classy gentleman,” and the “Best Prosecutor ever!!!!”
But many feel differently. Martinez has what Phoenix described as a “proclivity for salacious yarn-spinning and below-the-belt tactics.” Said one Phoenix lawyer, “He has a way of getting what he wants in the courtroom, and he is truly relentless. This is not necessarily a compliment.” Mel McDonald, a former judge and prosecutor and current defense attorney, was more explicit. “Juan is a victory-at-any-cost prosecutor driven by his own ego,” he stated. “He lies easily and he always overreaches, always plays to the mob mentality. … He doesn’t play clean, and he is far too devious for me to have any respect for him. He is dangerous.”
The stakes are as high as it gets. Martinez has been described as one of the top death-penalty prosecutors in the state, racking up at least eight death penalty sentences during his career. He has been accused of prosecutorial misconduct in six of those cases. The state court identified 17 instances of inappropriate behavior by Martinez in one case alone. And new allegations indicate that Martinez’s misconduct doesn’t stop at the courthouse. Since Arias’s conviction in 2015, Martinez has been accused of sexual misconduct and inappropriate sexual behavior by multiple women. In February 2017, Karen Clark and Ralph Adams, attorneys representing Arias in her appeal, filed a bar complaint that accused Martinez of significant inappropriate sexual misconduct related to the case, including having sex with a member of the press in exchange for favorable coverage and sexting jurors. In March of this year, they presented the state bar with new sexual harassment allegations, supposedly from as many as eight women. The new allegations raise even more questions about his professional conduct, especially when it comes to his relationships with women.
According to the attorneys, Martinez egregiously violated various ethical rules throughout the Arias trial. Martinez allegedly had sexual relationships with two bloggers who were covering the Arias trial. (Both women denied these claims, though Clark and Adams included extensive supporting evidence, including text messages and corroborating testimony. Martinez neither denied nor admitted to having sex with these women.) According to the complaint, Martinez “did so for his own selfish reasons, including so that they would publish certain non-public information that was damaging to Arias’s defense.”
The attorneys went even further than accusing Martinez of leaking information that would be inadmissible in court to the media. Martinez allegedly used one of the bloggers to “help him gather ‘dirt’ about a seated juror” because he thought the juror would be unwilling to sentence Arias to death. Martinez was unsuccessful in his effort to get the juror unseated, but his instincts were correct: That jury member was ultimately the only holdout on a death penalty conviction, resulting in a mistrial for the sentencing phase. (Mysteriously, “minutes” after a mistrial was declared, the juror’s name was made public.)
Martinez’s obsession with finding out private details about jurors resulted in additional violations of ethical boundaries during Arias’s sentencing retrial, according to Clark and Adams’s complaint. He allegedly engaged in an “inappropriate telephone and text-message relationship” with a juror who had been dismissed midtrial. The relationship, the complaint alleges, included the woman sending him nude photos and was encouraged by one of the bloggers. The dismissed juror later said that both Martinez and the blogger tried to get her to disclose private details about other jury members.
Clark and Adams presented the state bar with a wealth of evidence to support these allegations, including text message records, interviews with persons involved, and corroboration from friends and family. What’s more, Martinez did not explicitly deny most of the allegations, stating that his “private sexual life is no one’s business but his own.” Yet, in January, the state bar’s legal counsel dismissed the charges outright, refusing to even refer the case to the bar’s probable cause committee, which could have recommended consequences or sanctions, or to refer his case to a disciplinary hearing. Although the bar stated that “some of the charges relating to [his] conduct …would undermine public confidence that her case was administered justly,” they said that there was not “clear and convincing evidence” that he engaged in the behavior he was accused of. And while the bar called these alleged relationships “ill-advised” and stated that they would “predictably result in allegations of misconduct,” they also ultimately agreed with Martinez, concluding that sexual relationships with members of the media “does not constitute a violation of the ethical rules.”
Clark and Adams insist, in their appeal of the bar’s decision, that, “the sex is not the point.” The point, rather, is that Martinez allegedly “engaged in improper, undisclosed relationships with these members of the media covering the case; provided them after-hours access to non-public areas of the MCAO offices and non-public information about the case; used them in many ways … with the prosecution of a death penalty case,” they wrote.
“The improper relationships exist within the context of voluminous other acts of misconduct: which taken together constitute a gross violation of Respondent’s duties as a minister of justice, and a gross lapse of judgment in how he should conduct himself in the most serious case for which a prosecutor can be responsible: a capital murder case in which he seeks the death penalty.” (In March, the bar’s Attorney Discipline Probable Cause Committee ordered the state bar to reinvestigate Martinez, in response to Clark and Adams’s appeal.)
It’s not the first time the State Bar of Arizona has dealt with allegations about Martinez’s conduct. In just the three years since Arias was sentenced to life without parole in 2015, Martinez has faced six bar complaints on various grounds. All have been dismissed.
Even now, in an era that demands both increased accountability for sexual harassment and increased prosecutorial accountability more broadly, almost no one seems willing to hold Martinez responsible—not his boss, County Attorney Bill Montgomery, not the courts, and not the state bar.
The same leniency has not been extended to Martinez’s opponents in court. In 2016, Arias’s former attorney, Kirk Nurmi, self-published a book, Trapped with Ms. Arias. The book included what the state bar described as “disparaging remarks” about the defendant and revealed details about private conversations Nurmi had with Arias and members of her family. It also included evidence that had been deemed inadmissible by the trial judge. A bar complaint was filed against Nurmi, and he was disbarred for publishing the book.
Like Nurmi, Martinez published a book in 2016 called Conviction: The Untold Story of Putting Jodi Arias Behind Bars. Similarly, his book promised to “unearth new details from the investigation that were never revealed at trial, explor[e] key facts from the case and the pieces of evidence he chose to keep close to the vest.” The book also included unfavorable characterizations of Arias, and alleged that one juror was in love with her. A bar complaint was also filed against Martinez for his book. Although Nurmi was disbarred, Martinez’s complaint was dismissed.
Of course, as a defense attorney, Nurmi’s decision to speak negatively about Arias has significantly different implications than Martinez’s decision to do the same. But whether or not Martinez’s decision to write a book was technically improper, it was certainly unprofessional. The state bar agreed. “The perception created when a prosecutor attempts to immediately profit from his participation in a high-profile case is also very concerning,” stated the court’s order of dismissal. Others also criticized Martinez’s book. Dan Barr, an attorney in Phoenix and a former member of the State Bar of Arizona’s Ethics Committee, said it was a “horrible idea.”
“I can’t imagine what the County Attorney’s Office is thinking,” he stated. “There’s no upside for the county here in Juan Martinez publishing. There obviously is an upside for Juan Martinez in promoting himself and publishing his book.”
Not only has the state bar declined to hold Martinez accountable, but judges have repeatedly turned down opportunities to penalize outrageous behavior. In 2005, Martinez compared a Jewish defense lawyer to Adolf Hitler, which the Arizona Court of Appeals described as “reprehensible.” During that same trial, Martinez told the jury that the defendant had covered up past crimes, even though the judge had ruled that information could not be disclosed to the jury. The Court of Appeals called the disclosure “improper.” Still, the case was not overturned and no action was taken against Martinez.
Also in 2005, Martinez prosecuted Cory Morris, who was convicted of killing five sex workers and dumping their bodies in an alley. Martinez accused Morris of necrophilia, telling the jury that the defendant “continued to have sex with their bodies until they rotted and fell apart.” There was only one problem—the medical examiner hadn’t concluded any such thing. Yet, the Arizona Supreme Court excused his behavior, concluding that prosecutors have “wide latitude,” and did not overturn Morris’s case.
Even without the state bar and the courts, Martinez is presumably accountable to his office. But his boss, County Attorney Bill Montgomery, has repeatedly swept aside the misconduct allegations. Montgomery has even blamed the recurring complaints against Martinez on the ability of people to file complaints, implying that they are frivolous. Montgomery and his line prosecutors are emphatic about being tough on crime, and adhere to an ethos of harsh consequences. Yet, when it comes to Martinez, that attitude does not seem to apply.
Clark and Adams’s petition is still under consideration, so there remains a chance that Martinez will be held accountable by the state bar. But until then, he continues to be one of the most powerful prosecutors in Arizona—and continues to evade consequences.