Albrecht Muth’s refusal to eat forces court to delay his murder trial


Viola Drath at Arlington National Cemetery on April 9, 2010. Her husband, Albrecht Muth, is charged with her slaying, but his trial has been delayed a second time because of a hunger strike. (Sandy Schaeffer/MAI)

An obviously frustrated D.C. Superior Court Judge Russell F. Canan told murder suspect Albrecht Gero Muth that he would not tolerate more delays and to prepare to stand trial in March.

Muth shot back at the December hearing: “There will be no trial in March.”

That day, Muth, 48, charged with killing his 91-year-old socialite wife, Viola Herms Drath, stopped eating — resuming what prosecutors say has been a series of hunger strikes intended to stall justice.

Muth, an eccentric German native who masqueraded as an Iraqi general, a spy for several countries and European nobility, entered the D.C. jail in August 2011 as a strapping man who stood more than 6 feet tall. Over the months, he has withered to 104 pounds. He is now confined to a hospital bed at United Medical Center and, his doctor testified, is at risk of cardiac arrest and organ failure.

On the outside, Muth sought to move among Washington’s elite — government officials, top journalists and foreign dignitaries — fooling some with his military uniform, swagger stick and big talk. In custody, prosecutors say, he is trying to control the legal process.

“He’s trying to manipulate the court system,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Glenn L. Kirschner recently argued in court.

Muth’s trial was supposed to start Monday, but Canan reluctantly agreed last week with prosecutors and defense lawyers, who said they could not go forward given Muth’s poor health. The judge pushed the trial to December — the second time it has been delayed.

“This is an unusual circumstance,” Canan said at a recent hearing. “We are in uncharted territory.”

Drath, a former journalist and author, was found dead in August 2011 in the second-floor bathroom of a Georgetown home she shared with Muth, her husband of 22 years. Muth called police and said she had died from a fall, but a medical examiner ruled that Drath had been strangled and beaten.

Muth has said that he is innocent and that his wife was killed in an Iranian hit. If convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of life in prison.

From the start, Muth’s court proceedings have been unusual. In his first appearance after his arrest, Muth spoke loudly, telling the judge that he chose to represent himself. He said he wanted to wear his Iraqi uniform — which prosecutors said he purchased via the Internet from a shop in South Carolina — during the trial.

As the case proceeded, doctors at St. Elizabeths, the District’s psychiatric hospital, initially found that Muth was not mentally competent to stand trial. But after further examination and an opinion from an outside doctor, the judge ruled that Muth was competent. It was then, prosecutors said, that Muth began his most recent fast.

Since he began his hunger strikes, Muth has eaten sporadically, his doctor, Russom Ghebrai has testified. When his health worsens, his doctor says, he will eat a little or drink some juice.

Canan ruled last month that because of Muth’s fasting, he could no longer represent himself and reappointed public defenders, whom Muth had fired months earlier.

Muth has insisted that he is not on a hunger strike and has told his doctors that he is on a religious fast — dictated to him by the archangel Gabriel. According to testimony by his doctor, he said he plans to continue fasting until Easter.

Prosecutors are frustrated but seemingly have no recourse. Muth has been ruled competent, and authorities cannot force him to eat.

“This has to be addressed,” Kirschner, the prosecutor, has argued to Canan. “It can’t go on in perpetuity.”

Prosecutors also worry that other defendants might copy what they see as Muth’s delay tactics, but D.C. defense lawyers say they think that is unlikely.

“I don’t think you’re going to see inmates in D.C. jail saying, ‘Yeah, I want to do that too,’ ” said Betty Ballester, head of the Superior Court Trial Lawyers Association, which represents the city’s court-appointed lawyers. Ballester is not affiliated with the Muth case.

The difficulty in scheduling Muth’s case has affected at least one other case. During a recent hearing involving a D.C. man charged with rape, Judge Ronna L. Beck had initial concerns about scheduling the trial because the defendant is represented by Dana Page, one of Muth’s attorneys from the District’s Public Defender Service. Page was reluctant to confirm a trial date that could potentially conflict with Muth’s case.

Muth has participated in recent hearings via speakerphone from his hospital bed. His abrupt, staccato cadence is gone, and his speech is slurred.

At one point, when Canan told Muth to end his fast, Muth said he was following his “religious orders.”

“You live in a secular world, and I live in a religious world,” Muth said.

Even as Muth’s condition has worsened, Canan has seemed determined to have the case go forward. At one point, the judge considered having Muth participate in a trial by video feed from the hospital.

But prosecutors said they had reservations about moving forward with a trial without Muth in the courtroom, fearing that any conviction could later be overturned on appeal. They also said they worried about jurors and court workers who would see Muth, in a weakened state, on camera.

“He could die on camera during trial,” Kirschner said in court. “His desire is to make a dramatic statement at the very end.”

Drath’s family, particularly her daughter from her first marriage, Fran, and grandson Ethan, have been in court for many of the hearings. They said they will keep coming.

“Our family is prepared and willing to wait as long as it takes for justice to be served,” the Drath family said in a statement. “It is our belief that the person responsible for this brutal and senseless crime against our mother, sister and grandmother, Viola Drath, will be tried and sentenced accordingly.”

Keith Alexander covers crime, specifically D.C. Superior Court cases for The Washington Post. He has covered dozens of crime stories from Banita Jacks, the Washington woman charged with killing her four daughters, to the murder trial of slain federal intern Chandra Levy.
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