Aron Plea Ends Politician's 2nd Trial
By Michael E. Ruane
Ruthann Aron, the ambitious suburban politician accused of trying to hire a hit man to kill her husband and an attorney, entered a surprise plea of no contest yesterday, abruptly ending her second trial and concluding what a defense lawyer said was one of the "longest falls from grace" in local memory.
The plea, which was assailed by the prosecution as Aron's attempt to avoid accepting responsibility for her crime, was accepted by Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Vincent E. Ferretti Jr. as "a fair resolution of this case."
The no-contest plea, in which Aron withdrew her earlier plea of not guilty by reason of insanity to two counts of solicitation of murder, was the "functional equivalent of guilty," said Deputy States Attorney I. Matthew Campbell, the lead prosecutor on the case.
Ferretti did not set a sentencing date. The maximum sentence for the charges is two consecutive life sentences, though guidelines call for nine to 18 years in prison.
Aron, who had been free on home detention since last fall, was ordered jailed immediately, and she was taken to the Montgomery County Detention Center, pending a sentencing hearing. She showed no emotion as she was led from the courtroom by four deputy sheriffs, who quickly moved beside her as the judge accepted her plea.
Her "nolo contendere" plea Latin for "I will not contest it" was entered the day after testimony ended in her second four-week trial, and hours before the nine-woman, three-man jury was expected to begin deliberations.
Two jurors later hinted that deliberations might have been difficult again if the case had been submitted to the panel to decide.
Instead, the plea brought a striking conclusion to the case in which the fashionable and forceful onetime Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate was caught and tape-recorded in a single-minded, if bungling, attempt to have her husband and another man killed.
Her official request to change her plea came at 11:14 a.m., after a drawn-looking Aron showed up an hour late for court and then huddled for almost another hour with three of her lawyers, including Barry H. Helfand, who represented her in the first trial and had advised her to enter a plea rather than submit to another trial.
Aron, sounding anguished, stood in a dark blue blouse and light blue skirt as she told the judge in soft tones that she was entering the plea of her own free will and with a clear understanding of what she was doing.
"I think I know what I'm doing," she told the judge, as she nervously sipped from a plastic bottle of spring water and Helfand put his arm around her shoulder. Aron told the judge she had been pondering a plea on and off all during her second trial.
The lawyers for her second trial, Charles Cockerill and Harry Trainor, said they learned of her decision to plead late Wednesday, after two days of prosecution testimony that seemed damaging to her case.
Helfand said he did not know why she hadn't entered such a plea earlier. "She has a tough time, mentally, making a decision of this magnitude," he said.
Trainor said she "suffers from one or more personality disorders . . . this type of decision-making process was classic."
Said Cockerill: "The idea of going through this again was absolutely terrifying for her."
Montgomery County State's Attorney Robert L. Dean said the plea closed the "rather long and sad saga about the fall of Ruthann Aron."
Aron, a former member of the Montgomery County Planning Commission who was running for a seat on the County Council, was arrested June 9, 1997, after conducting a series of telephone negotiations with an undercover police detective she believed was a hit man.
In furtive conversations, she tried to arrange for the execution of her husband, Barry, a urologist, who was divorcing her, and Arthur G. Kahn, a bitter political enemy. She then delivered a $500 down payment for the job.
But police, tipped off by the local businessman Aron had first approached about the task, were watching and listening almost the whole time.
Aron, who used the Maryland insanity defense of "not criminally responsible," was first tried in March. That trial ended in a jury that deadlocked, 11 to 1, in favor of conviction.
Most jurors rejected her contentions that she was "not responsible" because of child abuse allegedly suffered at the hands of her father and poor treatment by an unfaithful husband.
Her second trial began July 6. After yesterday's proceeding, one juror said the panel expected deliberations to go into the middle of next week. A second suggested the possibility of another deadlock.
"There was a good chance it was going to come out as a hung jury," Jennifer Mann, 26, an elementary school teacher from Silver Spring, said in an interview after the plea. "I don't think everyone was going to agree." Mann said she believed Aron was guilty and responsible for the crimes.
Campbell, the prosecutor, at first urged the judge to reject the plea because Aron was not accepting responsibility for her deeds. "Even if at this juncture Mrs. Aron were to want to accept full responsibility for what she did, our position would be different," he said.
Helfand argued that the plea was an acceptance of responsibility. And Cockerill said later: "To stand up before court and say, 'Judge, you can give me two life sentences,' is taking responsibility."
In questioning Aron to make certain she understood what she was doing in deciding to change her plea to no contest, the judge had reminded her that he could impose a life sentence for each of the two counts against her even if he accepted her plea. Helfand pointed out later that similar cases in the past have netted defendants only about 18 months in jail, and Aron had insisted in previous plea discussions that she would accept no longer sentence if she pleaded.
Once the plea was accepted, Campbell asked that Aron be jailed, and the judge assented.
"It's now more than one year since Mrs. Aron was on the phone trying to get [an undercover officer] to kill two people," Campbell said. "It's time for Mrs. Aron to be incarcerated."
The judge said he would schedule a sentencing hearing but did not set a date.
The prosecutors said they weren't sure whether they would now try Aron on related charges that she had earlier tried to kill her husband by poisoning his chili. They said they needed to consult with her husband.
Most jurors in the current case, who were not present for yesterday's plea, declined to be interviewed and hurried from the courthouse after being thanked by Ferretti for their services. Two, though, agreed to share their impressions.
Mann, the schoolteacher, said she believed that Aron was mentally ill, as her lawyers had argued. But she felt that the illness did not impair or excuse Aron's actions.
Mann said that she began leaning toward Aron's guilt about two weeks into the trial and that the police audiotapes of Aron's conversations with the "hit man" were very convincing.
"They basically snagged her in the middle of her crime," Mann said. "She got caught in the act. . . . She knew, 'I'm totally caught in everything I did.'"
Another woman juror, who didn't want to be named, said she, too, was greatly impressed with the tapes and tended to dismiss the testimony about Aron's mental illness.
"It wasn't our job to figure out what disease she had," said the juror, who believed Aron was guilty and responsible for her deeds. She concluded that what illness there was did not seem to have affected Aron when she was actually committing the crimes, she said.
The juror said she also wondered about Aron's dropping her head on the table and covering her face during the trial, whether it was "an act to make us think she had a mental disorder or whether she was really upset."
Barry Aron who moved out of the Potomac home he shared with his wife last November and now lives in the Rockville area, did not want to comment personally, said his attorney, Stephen A. Friedman.
The reaction of Barry Aron, who Friedman said still sleeps with a shotgun by his bed, was "on behalf of himself and his children, he's very relieved that this nightmare has finally ended. He's only sorry that this wasn't done eight weeks of trial ago."
Kahn, the other man whose name Ruthann Aron provided the hit man, said last night that he was ambivalent about Aron's action.
"She does whatever is expedient," he said. "By pleading nolo contendere, she tacitly acknowledged that her insanity defense had no merit. But she managed to buy eight months at home."
Aron was jailed for two months immediately after her arrest, then spent about a month in the psychiatric ward at Suburban Hospital and three months being evaluated at Clifton T. Perkins Hospital Center, a state hospital for the criminally insane.
Kahn said Aron belongs in prison. In his view, she is both vengeful and unpredictable. "I still think of her as not having accomplished her objective. I still think of myself at risk."
John Harrison, the Alexandria lawyer whose name, prosecutors said, also appeared on Aron's hit list though it was never passed to the hit man, was stunned by her change of mind yesterday.
"She changed her plea . . . after all of that?" he asked. "She has really abused the taxpayers of Montgomery County. You've got two huge trials. The state's attorney went to enormous expense."
Harrison noted that most people plea no contest before a trial starts. "It's an indication that she knew she was going down," he suggested. "It's a huge compliment to the prosecution."
Still pending in the Aron matter are civil actions in which Barry Aron has sued his wife for $7.5 million for alleged emotional distress and she has sued him back for $25 million for allegedly exacerbating her mental illness with dangerous drugs and mistreatment.
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