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  •   Aron's Murder-for-Hire Trial Pits Top Local Legal Teams

    By Katherine Shaver
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Monday, February 23, 1998; Page A01

    The murder-for-hire trial of former U.S. Senate candidate Ruthann Aron that opens this week in a Rockville courtroom promises made-for-television drama combining a battle over Maryland's insanity defense with a dose of Montgomery County politics.

    Instead of disputing much of the evidence against their client, Aron's attorneys will try to show that she cannot be held responsible for any crime because of a long-term mental disorder. It is a defense rarely used in the state and is considered a last-ditch strategy.

    The cast of characters is led by Aron herself, a wealthy Potomac developer and politician, who is accused of soliciting an undercover police detective to kill both her physician husband and a Baltimore lawyer. The outcome of the case is also important to State's Attorney Robert L. Dean, who concedes that the success or failure of the prosecution may affect his chances for election in November.

    When the trial begins Wednesday, prosecutors from Dean's office will square off against a defense team made up of some of Montgomery County's most savvy and unpredictable legal talent. One of Aron's attorneys served on the state commission that helped write the existing law on the insanity defense.

    Officials at the county courthouse predict the Aron trial -- expected to last three weeks -- will draw perhaps the largest crowd ever at the courthouse.

    "It's a Hollywood movie that's going to be tried in a Montgomery County courtroom," said James F. Shalleck, a Montgomery Village lawyer and a Republican candidate for state's attorney. On top of the fascinating allegations, he said, "locally, you've got the best lawyers clashing."

    "It's one of the biggest cases that's been tried in Montgomery County in a long time," said Steve VanGrack, a Rockville lawyer considering a Democratic bid for state's attorney. "This is a local [politician] with high-profile attorneys being prosecuted by a state's attorney being evaluated very carefully."

    Aron, 55, has pleaded not criminally responsible to charges that she tried to hire a hit man to kill her husband of 31 years, Barry Aron, a urologist, and Arthur G. Kahn, a Baltimore lawyer who testified against her in a lawsuit stemming from her 1994 senatorial campaign.

    And while she allegedly was planning the slayings, Ruthann Aron was planning a run for the Montgomery County Council -- after switching her party affiliation from Republican to Democrat.

    Barry Aron has since told reporters that the couple's marriage had been strained for several years and that they planned to divorce after the election. Kahn's testimony against Aron came in a slander suit that she filed against the man who defeated her for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate.

    On Friday, Circuit Court Judge Paul A. McGuckian reversed an earlier position and ruled that the criminal charges and Aron's insanity defense will be presented and decided at the same time, rather than in separate phases.

    The question of guilt must be decided beyond a reasonable doubt, but the degree of required proof is lower for determining her mental competence. Legally, the standard is called preponderance of the evidence and generally is described as being 51 percent certain rather than 100 percent sure.

    The judge's ruling was a victory for the defense, which wanted to address the mental health issues from the start. Judith R. Catterton, one of the three defense attorneys, said that Aron, because of her fragile mental state, may have been incapable of even forming the intent to commit a crime.

    And, she said, Aron may have been "susceptible to being induced" by undercover police or their informant, William H. Mossburg Jr., the owner of a Montgomery waste transfer site whom Aron allegedly approached to find a hit man.

    "We don't have an issue of whodunit here," Catterton said. "We know she did something, and we have tapes of her talking to an undercover police officer." The police audiotapes, Catterton said, "are chilling" and "sound very cold."

    The nature and extent of Aron's alleged mental defect are unclear, though ultimately it will be the crux of the defense. Catterton would not identify the mental problem, though she said the defense will call psychiatrists who evaluated Aron before and since her arrest to testify.

    The prosecution, headed by Deputy State's Attorney I. Matthew Campbell, will call its own psychiatrists to try to convince jurors that Aron is not, and was not, insane.

    "I don't think there will be any disagreement at all that Ms. Aron is mentally ill and has been for some time," Catterton said. "I think there will be disagreement among experts [over] what impact her mental problems had on her behaviors."

    Other lawyers familiar with the Aron case but not involved in it said that a "not criminally responsible" defense is usually chancy, expensive and precludes using other defenses such as self-defense or alibi.

    Jurors must be convinced that Aron had a history of mental illness, that she committed acts considered bizarre or extremely out of character and that psychiatric experts vouch for the severity of her mental disorder, lawyers said.

    "In all the insanity cases I've been involved in, the easiest ones for the defendant to make are those who suffer a profound psychosis, those who are truly detached from reality . . . on a long-term basis," said Tom Heeney, a Rockville defense lawyer.

    But trying to prove someone is insane under Maryland law can also be awkward.

    "You can't get very far with a jury by saying, 'Ladies and gentlemen, I didn't do it, but if you find I did it, then I was insane,' " said Byron L. Warnken, a criminal law professor at the University of Baltimore's law school.

    F. Patrick Kelly, a Rockville lawyer and chairman of the criminal law section of the Montgomery County Bar Association, said the two manuals for homemade silencers and silencer-building equipment that police said they found in the trunk of Aron's car complicate her insanity defense.

    "It shows there was probably some premeditation and some logical thinking going on there," Kelly said. "To come into court then and say she's not criminally responsible -- that she didn't appreciate what she was doing was wrong or somehow couldn't stop herself from doing it -- that's a very difficult thing to prove to a jury."

    The verdict may determine whether Aron also will stand trial on charges arising from what police said was an earlier attempt to kill her husband. Aron allegedly served Barry Aron a dangerous dose of prescription drugs in a batch of homemade chili.

    She has pleaded not guilty to the poisoning charge. Prosecutors have said that if they can prove that Aron wanted her husband dead by hiring someone else to kill him, that also would show she had a criminal mind-set when she served him the chili. Results of tests, performed weeks after the alleged poisoning, revealed no signs of the drugs in samples of Barry Aron's hair and blood.

    The outcome of this trial also may affect whether Dean remains Montgomery state's attorney. Appointed state's attorney in 1996 after his mentor, Andrew L. Sonner, became a judge on the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, Dean is running for election to the post in the fall. This week, his office will be involved in key proceedings in two of the county's highest-profile cases. In addition to the Aron trial, Dean is trying to have Samuel Sheinbein extradited from Israel to stand trial in the dismemberment slaying of a Silver Spring teenager.

    Dean said the Aron and Sheinbein cases have "become a focus of our office, even though we have 44 attorneys doing other things." Dean will not be directly prosecuting the Aron case because, he said, he expects to be called as a witness. Police say Mossburg went to Dean with the story that Aron was looking for a hit man.

    Campbell, the lead prosecutor, and Debra Grimes, who will assist him, are career prosecutors who, in contrast to Aron's attorneys, have revealed little of their courtroom strategy. Campbell, 51, is best known for his work in a 1995 murder-for-hire case involving a Potomac millionaire and the 1991 prosecution of a Montgomery police officer who shot to death an unarmed Gaithersburg woman. Lawyers who practice in Montgomery said Campbell has a reputation for being low-key yet remarkably thorough and clever in cross-examining witnesses.

    "He prepares extensively for trial," Kelly said. "He misses nothing."

    Aron's attorneys make up what some of their colleagues consider Montgomery County's version of the "dream team" -- the best that money can buy. Barry Helfand, a Rockville lawyer who is probably Montgomery's best-known criminal defense attorney, was the first one Aron signed up. She had known him socially before her arrest.

    Helfand hired D.C. lawyer Erik D. Bolog, who lined up testimony from 10 mental health experts. Catterton, a Rockville lawyer and former prosecutor who helped rewrite Maryland's insanity law in the early 1980s, will likely lead Aron's psychiatric defense.

    "I think most attorneys would say if they got into trouble, they'd hire Judy Catterton," said Paul DeWolfe, a Rockville criminal defense lawyer.

    But it likely will be Helfand, with his casual salesman approach to juries, who will make an already intriguing trial a must-see. Considered bold and funny, Helfand takes center stage in a courtroom, like a show that everyone -- even the other side's lawyers, even the judge -- has come to see.

    During an October hearing in the Aron case, Helfand finished questioning a witness just as the defense team's private investigator walked into the courtroom carrying a padded, white envelope. When the prosecutor began her own questioning, Helfand rose from the defense table, walked purposefully to the gallery and retrieved the package. "I learned this in a Perry Mason movie," he cracked.

    Comedy aside, Helfand is regarded as smart, upfront and creative in crafting a defense. "His style can be described as theatrical, and that works well for him, but he also prepares well beforehand," DeWolfe said. "He knows his case, and he knows the law."

    If Aron is found not guilty, she will go free in this case. If she is found guilty but not responsible because of her mental health, a judge would determine whether she is dangerous to herself or others, Catterton said.

    If a judge finds she is no longer dangerous, she could get a "conditional release," Catterton said. That could resemble probation with the requirement that she get outpatient counseling. If determined to be dangerous, Aron would be committed to a state psychiatric hospital until doctors and a judge deem her to be safe.

    If Aron is convicted of the two counts of solicitation to commit murder and found criminally responsible, she could face a maximum penalty of life in prison.

    Staff writers Michael E. Ruane and Karl Vick contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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