Trial in Georgetown socialite Viola Drath’s death begins; husband watches from afar

Their marriage was far from traditional.

In 1990, Viola Herms Drath, was a 71-year-old Georgetown-based political and arts journalist, socialite and playwright when she married a tall, strapping, 26-year-old German native — Albrecht Gero Muth — who spoke with a thick, staccato accent. The two slept in the same bedroom but in separate beds. He was more of a companion who often served as her social scheduler. He even, authorities say, dated men while they were married.

But Muth also became abusive, authorities said, yelling at his wife and once striking her so hard she had red welts around her eyes. D.C. prosecutors say Muth ended Drath’s life in August 2011, beating and strangling her, then dragging her body to a bathroom in the home they shared. She was 91.

As Muth’s first-degree murder trial opened Tuesday in D.C. Superior Court, Assistant U.S. Attorney Glenn Kirschner told jurors during an hour-long opening statement that Drath’s death was a “domestic-violence murder” — one he said was a “long time coming.”

But Craig E. Hickein of the District’s Public Defender Service told jurors that his client is innocent and that prosecutors automatically assumed Muth had killed his wife. Hickein said that Muth is an “innocent man charged with a serious offense he did not commit” and that the prosecution’s theory is based on “speculation and conjecture.”

Drath’s family sat in the first row of the courtroom. But Muth, 49, was not in court Tuesday and will not be present during the trial. He’s about 10 miles away, in police custody, lying in a hospital bed. For more than a year, Muth has periodically fasted, his 6-foot frame dwindling to 92 pounds.

After a trial delay of nearly two years because of Muth’s decision to not eat regularly, Judge Russell F. Canan ruled that Muth had “waived” his right to be present at the trial by “orchestrating his own absence.”

Although Muth was not physically present in court, he was able to listen and watch the proceedings via a videoconference from his hospital room. Muth was also in contact with his attorneys by phone.

In the months after his arrest, Muth’s attorneys, Hickein and Dana Page, also of the Public Defender Service, argued in court that their client was mentally ill and should be committed long-term to St. Elizabeths Hospital. But after a series of evaluations by doctors, Muth was found competent and ordered to stand trial.

Kirschner told the jury that Muth was driven by greed and fear. Drath had drawn up a prenuptial agreement and a last will and testament, which would have left Muth with nothing, the prosecutor said. He said that Muth lived primarily on a $2,000 monthly allowance, which Drath had reduced by $200 in the weeks prior to her death.

On the morning of Aug. 12, 2011, when Muth telephoned police after he said he discovered his wife’s body, he also called Francesca Drath, 62, his stepdaughter, and asked her to come to the house.

When she Drath arrived, and police and members of the medical examiner’s office were upstairs in the house, Muth handed her a letter he said was from his wife and was drawn up two days before her death, according to testimony. The letter was allegedly an amendment to Drath’s will, which called for Muth to receive $200,000 upon her death.

Francesca Drath testified that she and other family members rarely got along with Muth, or “Mutey,” as her mother affectionately called her husband. They were fearful that he just wanted Viola Drath’s money. Neither she nor her sister was invited to the wedding.

Muth, she told the jury, would often drink excessively and become belligerent. Family gatherings at the house would become less frequent with Muth around, she said. Instead, they would see their mother outside the house at lunches or on walks, when Muth wasn’t present.

Under cross-examination, Page tried to solicit details of how Muth was attentive to his wife and used his wife’s Washington political and judicial contacts to host parties, where he cooked the food for the guests. “She liked it,” Francesca Drath said, adding that Muth wanted to make her mother “a star.”

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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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