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Jodi Arias trial: Prosecution on attack in case mixing graphic sex, violence

Two young, attractive people come together, and it's no match made in heaven. Dateline NBC's Josh Mankiewicz reports.

Let’s say you’re asked to write a recipe for the most sensational murder trial of the year. It might go something like this:

One charismatic victim.

One smart, sexy defendant.

A dash of religion. A large dollop of sex. Dozens of graphic photos. An unspeakable act of violence.

Stir the ingredients well with a hyper-aggressive prosecutor, and spread all over cable TV and the World Wide Web.

That’s the Jodi Arias trial. It started in January and has been grabbing eyeballs by the millions ever since. In case yours haven’t been among them, here are the basics.

In 2008, a handsome young man named Travis Alexander was found dead in his Mesa, Arizona, home. Not just dead — brutalized. Travis had been shot in the face and stabbed more than 20 times. His throat had been cut. Whoever killed him had dragged his body into a shower stall, ditched the weapons and fled.

Travis was by all accounts a great guy. He’d had a tough childhood. His parents were drug addicts. Sometimes there was no electricity, no food to eat. Travis might have been headed for trouble, but as a teenager he found the Church of Latter Day Saints — the Mormons. He came to see his life’s obstacles as steppingstones to success. He became a top insurance salesman, using his own hard-luck story to woo clients. He earned good money and liked a good time. He also liked women, and dated quite a few, according to his friends. But the LDS church prohibits premarital sex, and Travis had vowed to stay celibate until he found the right woman and settled down.

As it turned out, Travis’s vow of celibacy was no match for Jodi Arias.

A picture of their relationship emerges from court documents, trial testimony and interviews with friends.

Jodi grew up in small towns in California – the kind that aren’t so quaint. Last on the list Yreka, where she worked in her parents’ diner. Jodi dreamed of bigger things and, with her brains, looks and charm, had the tools to get what she wanted.

Tom Tingle / Pool via AP

Jodi Arias answers written questions from the jury on March 7 during her murder trial in Maricopa County Superior Court in Phoenix.

Jodi became Travis’ secret lover.

Outwardly, they were dating, but chaste. Jodi even converted to Mormonism. But in private, Jodi and Travis acted out kinky sex fantasies. Their double lives took a toll. They broke up, got back together, broke up again. Travis told friends Jodi was stalking him. Yet he still slept with her too — and also paid her to clean his house.

When Travis was killed, Jodi quickly became the prime suspect. At first she told police she was nowhere near Travis’s home at the time. Then police found a camera loaded with snapshots. The pictures proved Jodi and Travis had sex the day he died. And one photo — taken apparently by accident — seemed to show Jodi’s pant leg, along with Travis bleeding on the floor.

Jodi suddenly changed her story, telling police that home invaders killed Travis, but for some reason spared her. She stuck to that story until her trial, when suddenly she changed it again. Her latest version: Travis was abusive, and she killed him in self-defense.

In a marathon 19 days on the witness stand, Jodi seemed to remember every demeaning sex act she said Travis made her perform — but tearfully claimed not to remember killing him.

Prosecutor Juan Martinez’s withering cross-examination made him an instant Internet superstar.

"Ma'am, were you crying when you were shooting him?"

"I don't remember.”

"Were you crying when you were stabbing him?"

"I don't remember."

"How about when you cut his throat, were you crying then?"

But at times, Arias gave as good as she got.

“You seem to be having problems with your memory …. What factors influence your having a memory problem?"

"Usually when men like you are screaming at me or grilling me, or someone like Travis is doing the same.”

The defense rested last week, and prosecutor Martinez began calling rebuttal witnesses to try to undermine Arias’ claims of abuse. The jury could get the case later this month. Dateline has been covering the case from the beginning, and we’re working on a special, hour-long report, complete with new interviews, new information, and a behind the scenes look at a trial unlike anything you’ve seen before.