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  •   Aron Lawyers Decry Jury Publicity

    By Katherine Shaver
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Friday, April 3, 1998; Page B01

    Montgomery County politician Ruthann Aron was tentatively scheduled yesterday to be retried May 18 on murder-for-hire charges, but a defense attorney said Aron cannot get a fair jury because of intense publicity over a lone holdout juror in the first trial.

    State's Attorney Robert L. Dean also said yesterday that his office does not have the time or money to investigate eight jurors' claims that the lone holdout approached the case with preconceived ideas in favor of Aron's insanity defense.

    Presiding judge Paul A. McGuckian and attorneys in the case said they were not aware until the fourth day of deliberations that the juror taught at a school for emotionally disabled children and had professional experience with mental disorders. The juror, Sean D. Walker of Silver Spring, also has told reporters since the mistrial that she believes most criminals need help instead of punishment.

    Under oath during jury selection, Walker did not respond when McGuckian asked prospective jurors to stand if they would be influenced by "the thought of possible punishment, including incarceration." Walker also did not stand when McGuckian asked prospective jurors whether they worked in the mental health field.

    Dean said it would have been important for his two prosecutors to know about Walker's work with emotionally disturbed children and her views on prison to determine whether they wanted to strike her from the jury for being prejudiced. However, he said, investigating Walker's truthfulness during jury selection would take too much time and money.

    "So much of the jury selection process depends on the candor of jurors with judges and attorneys," Dean said. "I just can't see prosecuting someone for contempt of court or whatever charge. We have too many other things to do. I don't know if that would be the proper use of resources to investigate and prosecute this."

    Media attention shifted quickly this week from Aron to Walker, whose refusal to convict the onetime U.S. Senate candidate led to an 11 to 1 vote for conviction and a hung jury.

    The jury agreed unanimously that Aron, a wealthy developer, was guilty of plotting in June to have her husband and another man killed. But Walker stood alone in refusing to find Aron "criminally responsible" for the act. Since the trial, Walker has stood by her strong belief that Aron was too mentally ill to realize she was committing a crime.

    In a hearing yesterday to schedule Aron's retrial, defense attorney Barry H. Helfand criticized the media scrutiny of Walker's decision in the case. Helfand told Administrative Judge Paul H. Weinstein that such public attention makes it "impossible" for Aron to get a fair jury for her second trial if it is held May 18.

    "She [Aron] will not for a very long time, if ever, get a juror willing to hear a case . . . and not go for unanimity," Helfand told the judge.

    Judge McGuckian, who also will preside over the second trial, said he will rule Tuesday on the trial date. McGuckian also will rule on prosecutors' request to have Aron's retrial on the murder solicitation charges immediately followed by another trial on charges that she also tried to kill her husband by feeding him poisoned chili.

    McGuckian said in an interview yesterday that the media attention to Aron's first trial will make finding an impartial jury for her second trial more difficult, but not impossible.

    Several defense lawyers disagreed, saying that the publicity over Walker's dissent creates prob- lems for Aron's defense team.

    "The kind of reporting that hurts the most is when it's reported that the jury is hung 11 to 1," said Harry Trainor, a defense lawyer in Prince George's County. "The fact that the lone dissenter in the jury came under such scrutiny – her name was exposed, and she was sort of vilified by the other jurors – will be a sort of chilling effect on dissenters" in the second trial.

    Patricia Harvey, a Silver Spring lawyer who sits on the board of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said, "Look what happened to the one lady who stuck up for what she believed in. Do you think anyone will want to risk the fact that fellow jurors could go on TV and say their name just because they stuck up for what they believe?"

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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