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  •   Aron's Fate Now Rests With Jury

    Ruthann Aron, with lawyer Barry Helfand and mother Frieda Springer
    Ruthann Aron talks with her lawyer, Barry Helfand, at court while hugging her mother, Frieda Springer. (By James M. Thresher/TWP)

    By Katherine Shaver
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Tuesday, March 24, 1998; Page B01

    The fate of Montgomery County politician Ruthann Aron now rests with the jury, which must decide whether she carefully plotted revenge on her husband and a Baltimore lawyer or ordered their murders after being driven to insanity by a life of abuse and mental illness.

    The jury received the case at 6 p.m. yesterday, after hearing nearly six hours of closing arguments. It will begin its deliberations today.

    In closing, prosecutors told jurors to use their common sense and to listen to what they called irrefutable evidence -- 15 cassette tapes of Aron heard negotiating in businesslike fashion with an undercover detective posing as a hit man. Defense attorneys, meanwhile, asked jurors to keep an open mind about the tape recordings and to consider how a onetime U.S. Senate candidate with no criminal record became so mentally "unhinged."

    The jury of 10 women and two men will have to sort through almost a month of testimony from 47 witnesses. Much of the testimony contained complex and often conflicting opinions from experts debating Aron's mental health.

    Defense attorneys stressed again yesterday that Aron's childhood sexual abuse at the hands of her father and her own troubled marriage, coupled with her lifetime of depression and a borderline personality disorder, pushed her over the edge.

    "Take a person who has been abused and take a person who's brain-damaged, and maybe they can function awhile," defense attorney Judith R. Catterton told jurors. "But you put on top of that stress . . . and people like Ms. Aron decompensate."

    Prosecutors, however, painted a picture of a smart, ambitious politician who had set her sights on the Montgomery County Council. On the eve of announcing her candidacy last spring, prosecutors said, Aron saw her political hopes threatened.

    Her husband of 30 years, Potomac urologist Barry Aron, testified that he told his wife at that time that he wanted a divorce and planned to have other relationships. In an election campaign, Arthur G. Kahn, a Baltimore lawyer who Aron believed dashed her hopes for the U.S. Senate in 1994, might again publicize how she had stolen money from her past business partners, prosecutors said.

    "Ruthann Aron doesn't like to lose," Assistant State's Attorney Debbie Grimes said. "She decided she had to eliminate those people she believed were out to destroy her."

    Montgomery County's largest courtroom, nearly full yesterday with about 120 people, was silent during closing arguments. The jurors often appeared tired. Many stared at Aron as they heard again the recording of her scheduling two killings, describing her intended targets and once telling the supposed hit man that she was so concerned about confidentiality that she had considered doing the killings herself.

    Aron, 55, held her head in her hands and dabbed her eyes with a tissue during much of the closing arguments, as she has through most of the trial.

    While instructing the jury on the law, Circuit Judge Paul A. McGuckian noted that Aron's actions, such as her laying her head on the table, should not be viewed as evidence of her mental condition.

    Jurors first must decide unanimously whether Aron is guilty of soliciting murders -- a point that the defense has not disputed. If the jury rules that she did so, then it has to reach a unanimous decision as well on whether she is "criminally responsible" for her actions.

    The defense bears the burden of proof in showing that Aron was not responsible, which is Maryland's insanity defense. It must establish that Aron more than likely suffered a mental illness that made her unable to understand she was committing a crime or unable to control herself.

    If convicted and found responsible, Aron faces a maximum penalty of life in prison. However, because Aron has no criminal record and no one was physically hurt, Maryland sentencing guidelines would call for up to 36 years in prison, according to the Montgomery state's attorney's office.

    If found not criminally responsible, she would be committed to a state psychiatric hospital for an unspecified time, until doctors and a judge determine she is safe to herself and others.

    With most of the four-week trial focused on Aron's mental state, prosecutors and defense attorneys once again argued over the conflicting expert testimony.

    Deputy State's Attorney I. Matthew Campbell dismissed the mental diagnoses from a "posse" of paid defense experts, who he said used "psychobabble" to explain away Aron's actions. Those experts, Campbell said, "gathered around twisting and pushing and trying to find an insanity defense where there isn't one."

    Defense attorney Barry H. Helfand urged jurors to remember the torment of Aron's childhood and her history of depression dating to the 1970s.

    "I'm not trying to condone it," Helfand said of Aron trying to hire a hit man. "I'm trying to explain it."

    Staff writer Susan Levine contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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