Five-Week Aron Case Ends in Mistrial
and Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, March 31, 1998; Page A01
The trial of Montgomery County politician Ruthann Aron ended in a mistrial yesterday after 11 jurors were unable to convince a single holdout over five days of deliberations that Aron was legally sane when she plotted to kill her husband and another man.
Disappointed prosecutors said they will seek to quickly retry the case, which took nearly five weeks to complete. But defense attorneys said for the first time that they did not rule out the possibility of a plea agreement, stressing that the trial had taken a severe emotional toll on Aron.
Since the second day of deliberations, the panel of 10 women and two men had been deadlocked 11 to 1 in favor of finding Aron guilty and criminally responsible for trying to hire a hit man to kill her husband and a Baltimore lawyer in June.
After meeting privately yesterday with Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Paul A. McGuckian for 30 minutes, eight jurors told a throng of reporters of their disappointment and frustration throughout their deliberations with the last holdout -- whom they identified as juror No. 2, Shawn D. Walker, of Silver Spring.
Many jurors said they believed that Walker's job as an instructor at a Rockville school for emotionally disabled children, and her experience there with mental disorders, led her to sympathize with Aron's insanity defense.
Walker, 39, left the courthouse without joining the news conference and later declined to comment. "I don't have anything to say. I don't want to get involved in this," Walker told a reporter outside her home in the 16000 block of Chester Mill Terrace.
Panel members said they decided to tell the judge that they were deadlocked yesterday "once we saw her train of thought and how illogical she was," said juror Gina Smallwood, 31, of Takoma Park.
The 11 jurors spent the last three days of deliberations discussing the case among themselves while Walker recopied many of the 140 pages of notes she had taken during the trial, jurors said. Kimberly Genau, 27, whom fellow jurors dubbed "our lawyer," repeatedly presented the prosecution's evidence but could not convince Walker.
Many of the jurors said they discounted expert testimony on questions in which doctors for the prosecution and defense disagreed. In the end, many jurors said, they couldn't overlook the state's best evidence -- 15 taped conversations of Aron scheduling the contract killings with an undercover police detective posing as a hit man.
"They showed how calm and calculating she was," said juror Lillian Reyes, 42, a Gaithersburg resident and customer service representative for the Maryland Department of Motor Vehicles.
Walker "kept saying things based on her personal and professional experience," Reyes said. "We'd say what about the evidence? What about the law? She'd say, 'This doctor says she has this, this and this.' But how do you weigh the different doctors if they don't agree?"
Several jurors said the holdout blamed all of Aron's conduct on "bipolar disorder," a mental illness that defense doctors said she suffered in which people alternate between severe depression and hyperactivity.
Juror Carlos Nieto, 48, of Germantown, an employee of the National Institutes of Health, said Walker would tell them: "I've seen it [bipolar disorder]. It comes and goes. This is how it manifests itself."
Deputy State's Attorney I. Matthew Campbell, who prosecuted the high-profile case with Assistant State's Attorney Debra Grimes, said Walker did not disclose that she worked for Rockville's Regional Institute for Children & Adolescents when she filled out her juror form. The institute is a county and state facility for emotionally disabled children.
"She put 'educational technology instructor' " as her occupation on the form, Campbell said. "If we knew the bias she brought to the case and that she wouldn't reason, we'd have wanted her off the jury."
Several jurors also said that Walker often appeared hostile toward men and said Aron's problems stemmed from mistreatment at men's hands.
"From the beginning, [Walker] was passing the blame to men," Nieto said.
Aron's lead attorney, Barry H. Helfand, told jurors during opening arguments that he deliberately sought a mostly female panel. He said he wanted Aron's "peers" who could identify with her, particularly her experience as a young girl being sexually abused by her father.
Juror Carmen Schloner, a computer specialist, said she and the others gave up when Walker asked them: If Aron "was a man would you be reaching the same decision?" At that point, Schloner said, "we quit."
Shortly after the jury's dismissal, State's Attorney Robert L. Dean said he was prepared to retry Aron, a former U.S. Senate candidate and onetime county planning board member, "as soon as we can . . . as soon as the court sets a date."
Dean, who is campaigning to keep his job as state's attorney, has acknowledged that winning a conviction in the high-profile Aron case will be important at the polls in November.
Asked whether a mistrial was damaging to his political ambitions, Dean said, "Oh, that's silly. I don't think this has any political significance. There was no winner or loser."
Even so, a hung jury in a case in which the crime was literally caught on tape left defense attorneys openly grinning. Dean's two prosecutors who tried the case, while appearing relaxed and optimistic before the television cameras, looked weary and drained outside the press conference.
Helfand hinted that his client might now be prepared to accept a plea agreement rather than face a second trial. "I'm not sure," he said when asked if Aron would plead guilty as part of a deal. Earlier, he'd said Aron would not consent to such an arrangement.
Judge McGuckian said he will meet with prosecutors and defense attorneys Tuesday to schedule a new trial. Aron's trial on separate charges that she tried to kill her husband by feeding him poisoned chili was set to start Monday but will now be delayed.
Prosecutors had argued that a smart and ambitious Aron tried to "eliminate" the two people she believed stood between her and a seat on the Montgomery County Council.
Her husband, Potomac urologist Barry Aron, had threatened to divorce her after 30 years of a volatile marriage, possibly hurting her public image as she prepared for her council campaign, prosecutors said. Aron allegedly blamed Baltimore lawyer Arthur G. Kahn for her failed 1994 U.S. Senate bid after he talked to reporters about a civil jury verdict against Aron for stealing money from her former real estate partners.
But Aron, a developer with a reported $2 million in assets, mounted an ambitious and costly defense. She hired a team of four lawyers, including one who helped rewrite Maryland's insanity law in 1984. Aron also paid for seven doctors and psychologists who testified, some at fees of as much as $400 an hour, that she had suffered years of severe depression, a borderline personality disorder and mild brain damage.
Those mental disorders, along with the trauma of years of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of her father and the stress of an impending divorce, mentally "unhinged" Aron in June, the defense argued.
Barry Aron's attorney, Stephen A. Friedman, said his client was "disappointed, mainly for his [two grown] children," and is hoping that a plea agreement can be reached to avert another trial.
Helfand said the mistrial left him both elated and disappointed, and his client greatly relieved, for the moment. "The prospect of going through this again is very, very troubling for her," Helfand said. "This has been very gut-wrenching for her. She was very, very upset and very, very scared."
Helfand showed Aron the jury's note saying that it was deadlocked moments before it was read aloud in open court. With her eyebrows furrowed, Aron gazed ahead at the jury with a blank expression.
Aron was free to go last night on the original conditions of her bond, including that she wear an electronic monitoring bracelet. As she left the courthouse surrounded by television camera operators and photographers, Aron was asked if she were relieved. "Not yet," she replied.
Staff writers Manuel Perez-Rivas and Scott Wilson contributed to this report.
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