Prosecutor Rules Out Any Plea Bargain
and Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, April 1, 1998; Page B01
Montgomery County State's Attorney Robert L. Dean ruled out a plea agreement yesterday to resolve the murder-for-hire charges against politician Ruthann Aron, whose five-week trial ended Monday with the jury declaring itself deadlocked because of a lone holdout against her conviction. Dean said he plans to retry Aron as soon as possible.
Meanwhile, seven of the 12 jurors and an alternate met yesterday for three hours with Dean and the two prosecutors in the case to continue venting their frustrations over what many saw as the holdout's bias in favor of Aron's insanity defense.
The holdout, juror Shawn D. Walker, defended her actions in an interview last night, the Associated Press reported, saying she believes people should be helped, not punished.
"I'm a humanitarian," the AP quoted Walker, 39. "I have a very strong belief system. I think people look at the individual and do what is best for the individual rather than going for the punitive method."
Presiding Circuit Court Judge Paul A. McGuckian said yesterday that Walker's job as a teacher at a school for emotionally disabled children, not disclosed to the judge or lawyers until the fourth day of deliberations, would not have automatically disqualified her from serving on the jury.
McGuckian, prosecutors and defense attorneys culled 150 Montgomery voters Feb. 25 to pick 12 jurors and six alternates. McGuckian asked prospective jurors to stand if they were "in any way in the field of mental health or diagnosing mental disorders, other than being a physician or licensed person," according to tape recordings of jury selection. Walker was not among the nine who stood.
Walker also did not mention her job when jurors were asked on a written questionnaire whether "anyone close" to them suffered from depression, bipolar disorder or other mental illnesses, attorneys in the case recalled.
During deliberations, several jurors said, Walker argued that Aron was "not criminally responsible" for trying to hire a hit man to kill her husband and a lawyer. The jurors said Walker told them she knew Aron suffered from bipolar disorder because many of her students had the same illness.
"Ordinarily, from my experience, a juror who's involved with emotionally disturbed children would raise her hand," said Arthur G. Kahn, the lawyer Aron is charged with plotting to kill. "This looks like juror nullification."
Walker has taught vocational technology for high school students at the Regional Institute for Children & Adolescents in Rockville since 1993, according to Montgomery school officials. The school is staffed with special education instructors to teach the regular curriculum and vocational courses for severely emotionally disturbed children, school officials said.
Although prospective jurors are asked for their occupation on a form they fill out before they are summoned, they are not asked where they work. Walker wrote "technology education teacher" on her form, McGuckian said. As in most jury selections, the judge said, Walker and other jurors were never asked specifically where they work because it's usually not considered relevant.
"I'm sure everyone would have liked to have known she was a teacher at RICA," McGuckian said. "I'm sure that might have raised some issues or questions, but who knows. . . . You have to depend on jurors, that they'll tell the truth and that they'll bring to the court's attention things that would appear to be relevant."
Either the defense or prosecution might have wanted to use one of their eight "preemptory strikes" to exclude her from the panel, McGuckian said. However, the judge said the fact that she taught at the school would not have caused him to dismiss her for being automatically biased, much as he said he would not have barred a psychiatrist from the jury if the person could be fair.
The Associated Press reported that Walker said her job as a teacher of mentally disabled children had little bearing on her decision that Aron wasn't criminally responsible. Walker said she became convinced of that after listening to testimony presented by doctors who took the stand for the defense. Generally, they agreed that Aron had so many mental problems that she could not have understood the criminal implications of her actions.
Walker told the AP she felt pressured by the other 11 jurors, who had decided by the end of the second of five days of deliberations that Aron was criminally responsible. One juror, Walker said, didn't want to be there because she wasn't getting paid, and another juror, who was getting married, was in a hurry to finish so he could attend a bachelor's party.
"I felt very attacked," she said. "And their intimidation did not work. Then they started yelling at me. . . . Some of them on the jury were very young, naive; some of them were close-minded or did not understand all the terminology that the experts used in the testimony. They were attacking my thinking process."
Defense attorneys said Walker did nothing more than hold on to her "honest belief," as McGuckian had instructed the panel to do.
Attorney Judith R. Catterton said she and Aron's two other attorneys purposely sought a mostly female jury because statistically women are more likely to seek mental health therapy than men. Catterton said defense attorneys did not know of Walker's professional background until the judge found out Friday.
And Erik D. Bolog, another of Aron's attorneys, noted that Walker's job and any special insight into mental illness she might have gained from it could have just as easily worked for the prosecution.
"She could have said, 'Look, guys, I work on a daily basis with mentally challenged people, and everything I see in this woman isn't mental illness,' " Bolog said.
Meanwhile, Dean said his prosecutors, Deputy State's Attorney I. Matthew Campbell and Assistant State's Attorney Debra Grimes, are preparing for a retrial, which could be scheduled Tuesday.
"There's not any talk of a plea here," Dean said. "This is going to be a trial."
If Aron decides on her own to plead guilty to the two counts of murder solicitation and accepts criminal responsibility, he said, he will not ask for any special considerations in her sentencing, which could result in up to 35 years in prison.
Defense attorneys on Monday for the first time did not rule out seeking a plea agreement. Catterton said yesterday that she did not know whether Aron would voluntarily accept prison time. But if a second trial doesn't take place for several months, she said, Aron's doctors will have had even more time to analyze her mental health.
"We'd hope that would work for us," Catterton said.
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