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  •   Aron Case Returns To Court for 2nd Try

    By Katherine Shaver
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Monday, July 6 1998; Page B05

    Onetime U.S. Senate candidate Ruthann Aron returns to a Montgomery County courtroom today to face a retrial on charges that she tried to hire a hit man to kill her husband and a lawyer.

    The first trial, which ended in March after the jury declared itself deadlocked 11 to 1 to convict, became a dramatic five-week dissection of the life, mind and turbulent marriage of the Potomac millionaire politician. The second looks more like another summer rerun.

    The bulk of the evidence already has been revealed; few startling new details are anticipated. Even among lawyers, politicians and high society, the case that once captivated now lacks cachet.

    "The first trial was so unusual and the result was so unusual and generated so much interest, I think everyone is sort of exhausted by it," said F. Patrick Kelly, chairman of the criminal section of the Montgomery County Bar Association. "It's not generating the same interest it did the first time. It's kind of like, `We saw this movie once before.' "

    If the trial's sheer entertainment value has diminished, the legal questions haven't. The focus this time likely will shift to the changing legal strategy of Aron's new defense team. Aron still is pleading "not criminally responsible," arguing that she was legally insane when police tape-recorded her haggling over contract-killing prices last June.

    "They have to find a different approach, because obviously the first one didn't resonate with 11 out of 12 people," said Steve Bienstock, a Rockville lawyer who followed the case. "It'll be hard to do."

    The prosecution's best evidence once again probably will come in Aron's voice. Police tape-recorded 15 conversations in which Aron discussed the alleged murder plot with an undercover detective posing as a hit man.

    Aron is heard ordering the killings of her husband, Barry Aron, a prominent urologist, and Arthur G. Kahn, a lawyer she allegedly blamed for the failure of her 1994 U.S. Senate bid. Prosecutors said Aron, a longtime gun enthusiast, also had bought subsonic ammunition and equipment to build a homemade silencer, as if she were prepared to carry out the killings herself.

    Aron's first defense team portrayed her as a mentally ill woman who became legally insane after struggling through a childhood of sexual abuse at the hands of her father, brain damage, years of depression and a borderline personality disorder.

    Aron's new attorneys say that her mind is still at the crux of their strategy, but that they will try to explain better the seriousness of her mental disorders. Jurors in the first trial said they were often confused by the conflicting testimony about her disorders.

    Psychiatrists and psychologists for both the prosecution and the defense agreed that Aron suffered some degree of depression or personality disorder. But like many insanity-defense cases, the trial came down to a battle between the experts -- and which ones the jury believed.

    Defense experts testified that Aron suffered serious mental illnesses that made her unable to realize she was committing a crime or unable to abide by the law -- the two-prong test for Maryland's insanity defense.

    Experts for the prosecution testified that, although Aron may have some mental disorders, they did not affect her ability to reason or stop herself from planning to have the two men killed.

    Aron's new attorneys said that the discovery that some jurors from the first trial later said they didn't fully understand the medical diagnoses has played a pivotal role in their strategic planning. Some jurors said that when a defense expert testified that Aron was legally insane and a prosecution expert said just the opposite, they disregarded both.

    "Some of the feedback we got from previous jurors was that it was so far over their heads. We'll try to make it more understandable," said Harry Trainor, one of Aron's new attorneys.

    The new jury also will hear about additional psychological testing that Aron has undergone since the first trial, Trainor said.

    "These people don't just make these opinions up," said Charles Cockerill, Aron's other new attorney. "It's a difference of medical expert opinions. I think our opinions are still supported by the facts more than the state's [expert] opinions."

    Trainor also said Aron's new defense will focus more on whether police entrapped her into negotiating the killings with the undercover detective. The defense also will argue that Aron lacked the mental ability to form intent to commit a crime, Trainor said.

    Deputy State's Attorney I. Matthew Campbell, who will retry the case with Assistant State's Attorney Debra Grimes, said he could not discuss the coming trial but said the prosecution's case will be "streamlined." The trial still probably will last a month.

    That Aron sought a second trial at all surprised many in Montgomery's legal circles. The first jury's 11 to 1 vote in favor of conviction would have convinced many defendants to enter a plea agreement, several lawyers said.

    Barry H. Helfand, one of Aron's first defense attorneys, told reporters after the first trial that Aron was considering pleading guilty because she was emotionally spent and her attorneys believed they might not convince another jury that she was insane.

    But plea negotiations bogged down early on after Aron said she would agree to serve only 18 months or less in the county detention center. With state sentencing guidelines calling for eight to 18 years in prison, prosecutors balked, according to a source close to the case.

    Why go through another trial?

    "Maybe because she's innocent," said Patricia Harvey, a Silver Spring defense lawyer who observed some of the first trial. "Or maybe her new attorneys can show something that her other attorneys, maybe for tactical reasons, didn't bring out."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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