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  •   Aron's Attorneys Rest Their Case

    By Katherine Shaver
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Tuesday, March 17, 1998; Page B01

    Attorneys for Montgomery politician Ruthann Aron rested their case in her murder-for-hire trial yesterday, concluding an ambitious but risky defense strategy that some legal experts said stretches Maryland's definition of insanity.

    Psychiatrists testifying for the defense have said Aron cannot be held "criminally responsible" because mild brain damage and a host of mental disorders left her unable to realize what she was doing when she tried to hire a hit man to kill her husband and a Baltimore lawyer. Aron is not psychotic, defense experts said, but rather lacked the ability to think clearly and rationally.

    But several other psychiatrists and lawyers familiar with the case said the types of mental disorders raised in Aron's defense generally do not meet Maryland's legal threshold for insanity.

    In most cases where someone is found not responsible for a crime because of a mental condition, the defendant suffers hallucinations, hears voices or has other clear symptoms of having lost touch with reality, according to the psychiatrists and lawyers. Showing that someone suffered mental disorders that made him or her less stable, even more likely to commit a crime, typically is not enough under the law, they said.

    "If someone killed somebody because they believed the devil is inside them and the devil was telling them to do it, then that sounds pretty nutso," said Mark J. Mills, a Washington lawyer and forensic psychiatrist who is called to testify in insanity cases across the nation.

    "If you kill someone, on the other hand, because they're a pain in the butt, that sounds pretty greedy," he said. "Even if you have a mental illness, the question is why did they do it?"

    One of Aron's attorneys conceded outside the courtroom yesterday that the defense team has taken a "nontraditional" approach to the insanity plea.

    Defense attorney Barry H. Helfand said the secretly recorded audiotapes of Aron negotiating with an undercover detective posing as a hit man "give the state an awful lot of ammunition" against Aron. However, he said, Aron could not "intellectually and emotionally" appreciate the criminality of her actions, particularly because of her severe depression.

    "Whether the jury buys it is a harder question," Helfand said. "It's difficult to convince a jury because people think of mental illness as a homeless person talking to themselves."

    Said Judith R. Catterton, one of Aron's other attorneys, who served on the state commission that rewrote the insanity law in 1984: "You can't say certain disorders don't count."

    If the jury believes the onetime U.S. Senate candidate coldly plotted to "eliminate" her estranged husband and a lawyer who threatened her political ambitions, as the prosecution contends, she could face up to 36 years in prison, attorneys say. But if the jury decides Aron acted after being driven to insanity from years of mental disease and childhood sexual abuse, she would be committed to a psychiatric hospital until doctors and a judge deem her safe to herself and others.

    Ruthann Aron
    Ruthann Aron
    (Bill O'Leary/TWP)
    The jury could begin deciding the case this week, after prosecutors present their own mental health experts in rebuttal.

    Maryland law does not specify which mental illnesses qualify under the definition of "insanity" as long as the disorders make someone unable to understand he is breaking the law or unable to stop himself from committing a crime.

    It is a high hurdle. Of the 800 or so criminal defendants who entered insanity pleas last year, only 38 were found by a judge or jury to be legally insane, or not criminally responsible, said W. Lawrence Fitch, a lawyer and director of forensic services for the Mental Hygiene Administration of Maryland. Most of those, Fitch said, were delusional schizophrenics.

    A 1991 study published in the Bulletin of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law found that, in eight states, criminal defendants pleaded insanity in about 1 percent of all cases. Of those, about one-quarter resulted in acquittals.

    "The vast majority of people with a mental illness who commit crimes don't have the basis for an insanity defense," said Fitch, who declined to discuss the Aron case specifically. "For someone to not appreciate that what they were doing is against the law requires a high level of thought disorder."

    In fact, lawyers and psychiatrists say, the vast majority of cases involving an insanity plea never go to trial. Most defendants either drop the plea after a state psychiatrist deems them sane, or the defendants are so clearly insane that prosecutors and defense attorneys quickly agree the person needs hospitalization.

    But the prosecution and defense in Aron's case disagreed from the start. A state psychologist testified for the prosecution yesterday that Aron suffers a chronic, low-grade depression, anxiousness and a general personality disorder. However, none of them affected her ability to be fully responsible for her actions, said Kevin Richards, a psychologist at Clifton T. Perkins Hospital Center in Jessup.

    In questioning of witnesses, prosecutors have repeatedly suggested that Aron carefully prepped for the murders and was ready to do them herself. Witnesses have testified that she bought silencer-making equipment, appeared to have filed off the serial number on her pistol and haggled over the down payment for the first killing.

    Defense psychiatrists say Aron's own actions -- her ridiculously obvious disguise, the poor planning that led to her arrest -- demonstrate she was not thinking like the savvy and suspicious woman who proved herself as a developer and politician. Neurological examinations, defense psychiatrists testified, show she suffered mild damage to the area of the brain that controls impulses and that she suffers from severe depression and borderline personality disorder.

    However, evidence that Aron took any logical steps to secretly carry out a murder-for-hire scheme will work against attempts to show she didn't understand she was breaking the law, attorneys say.

    "I think there's no question she was suffering from mental illness," said Paul DeWolfe, a Montgomery defense lawyer who represented a Poolesville man found not criminally responsible in 1996 for stabbing his wife 32 times.

    Still, DeWolfe said, the defense will have trouble showing that a mental illness affected her self-control if prosecutors "can convince [jurors] that at any point she had the ability to stop and not pay the hit man or not to go through with the conspiracy."

    Some defense lawyers suggest that, rather than trying to prove insanity, Aron's attorneys may be playing on the emotions of the overwhelmingly female jury. With enough psychiatric diagnoses and enough sympathy for a woman reportedly brutalized by her father and mistreated by her husband, some say, the jury might want to send Aron to a psychiatric hospital rather than prison, regardless of her sanity.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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