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  •   Holdout Juror Says Aron Needs Help

    By Katherine Shaver
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, April 2, 1998; Page A1

    The lone juror who refused to convict Montgomery County politician Ruthann Aron on murder-for-hire charges said yesterday she thinks that Aron is guilty of plotting two murders but that the onetime U.S. Senate candidate is like most criminals in needing help rather than prison.

    Shawn D. Walker, 39, said she wanted to defend herself against eight other jurors who publicly blamed her for their inability to reach a verdict in the five-week trial, which ended Monday in a mistrial. Other jurors said Walker did not fairly consider the evidence and was biased in favor of Aron's insanity defense because Walker teaches at a Rockville school for emotionally disabled children.

    "I feel if a person commits a crime, they're really asking for help in an inappropriate way. Their needs are not being met," Walker said. "Every doctor said [Aron] had more than one [mental] disorder, and I really think due to her brain damage from being dehydrated [owing to medication] and being abused sexually and physically as a young child that she really couldn't see the forest through the trees."

    In a 30-minute interview outside her Silver Spring home, Walker said she has felt the heat of being publicly identified as the lone holdout. Students in her vocational technology classes asked yesterday whether she had done something wrong, she said. One student said his bus driver told him Walker "should be slapped." She declined to have her photo taken, saying she is concerned about her safety.

    Presiding Judge Paul A. McGuckian asked during jury selection Feb. 25 whether any of the 150 prospective jurors would "let his or her decision in this case be influenced by the thought of possible punishment, including incarceration," if Aron was found guilty and criminally responsible, according to a tape recording of the questioning. Jurors were to stand if the answer was yes.

    Walker said she did not stand – despite what she called yesterday her "humanitarian" belief that most criminals need help rather than punishment – because she didn't believe it would affect her ability to judge the case fairly. She said she also did not stand when the judge asked whether anyone was "in any way in the field of mental health" because she considers herself a special education teacher, not a mental health professional.

    Walker said her decision to hold out, refusing to convict, "was my civic responsibility. I feel I needed to do what I did."

    Indeed, some legal scholars and lawyers have expressed concern that such scrutiny in the media of one juror's views, no matter how unpopular with other jurors, could have a chilling effect on future juries.

    "I'm quite concerned," said A.J.D. Schmidt, a Rockville defense lawyer who had a hung jury in January for a client accused of rape. "I think there could be great pressure now on any minority member of a jury not feeling that he or she can vote their own convictions."

    "The one thing our [legal] system holds dear is the idea of unanimity" on a guilty verdict, said Douglas L. Colbert, a criminal law professor at the University of Maryland law school in Baltimore. "Now there's such a backlash, someone else in future trials who believes in the minority position may think they're now going to be accused of coming in with preset ideas."

    The jury of 10 women and two men found unanimously that Aron did try to hire a hit man to kill her husband, Potomac urologist Barry Aron, and lawyer Arthur G. Kahn last June. However, 11 jurors were unable to convince Walker that Aron also was "criminally responsible" for the act. Using Maryland's version of an insanity defense, Aron's attorneys argued that she was too mentally ill to realize what she was doing.

    Walker said yesterday that she believed many of her fellow jurors were "naive" and didn't take seriously the testimony from doctors who had treated Aron and who diagnosed serious mental illnesses, including severe depression and a borderline personality disorder. Walker said the other jurors "verbally attacked" her during the five days of deliberations. Other jurors, however, said they ended in a hung jury not because the evidence was inconclusive but because Walker wouldn't budge from her preset, job-related views about mental illness. Eight jurors complained in private meetings to McGuckian and State's Attorney Robert L. Dean.

    Juror Laura Fox, 32, of Germantown, said she and other jurors were upset that Walker had not revealed her profession during jury selection. Jurors said that they knew about Walker's job from the first day of the trial but that it was not revealed to the judge or attorneys in the case until the fourth day of deliberations.

    "We were all given an opportunity to go up there and tell the judge and the attorneys anything that we felt they needed to know," Fox said. "She should have come forward with this information."

    Walker said she did draw on her own experience as a former carpenter and current vocational technology teacher to sympathize with defense arguments that Aron was mistreated as a woman working in a male-dominated world.

    "I think our culture devalues women," Walker said. "If Ruthann Aron were a man – even though there were 10 female jurors and two male jurors – I question, would they take her mental disorders seriously? I think they would."

    Staff writer Michael E. Ruane contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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