The Bethesda lawyer accused of conspiring with her best friend to kill her estranged husband as a way of resolving a bitter child custody battle went on trial in Frederick County yesterday, nine months after Maryland's highest court threw out her conviction by a Montgomery County jury.
Prosecutors said yesterday that Elsa D. Newman, 52, became so desperate after losing the custody fight that she plotted with a close friend, State Department employee Margery Lemb Landry, to kill her husband, Arlen J. Slobodow. While Newman was out of town at a wedding, Landry broke into Slobodow's home in Bethesda early Jan. 7, 2002, while Slobodow was sleeping in a bed with his 5-year-old son, and shot Slobodow in the leg.
Landry escaped in the subsequent struggle, but Slobodow was able to tear off the ski mask covering her face and called police. He survived the attack.
After pleading guilty in September 2002, Landry was sentenced to 20 years in prison. In the previous trial, Newman was convicted and also sentenced to 20 years in prison. But the Maryland Court of Appeals ordered a retrial in December, on the grounds that the trial court improperly compelled testimony by Stephen Friedman, who at one point served as Newman's divorce attorney.
Friedman had testified that he heard Newman discuss plans to kill Slobodow. In the new trial -- moved to Frederick County at the defense's request on the grounds that the case had received too much publicity in Montgomery -- prosecutors will not be allowed to use Friedman's testimony.
But they are still trying to prove that Newman and Landry planned the attempted killing together, after accusing Slobodow of abusing his two sons. Police found no evidence to support the abuse charges.
In her opening statement yesterday, Montgomery County Deputy State's Attorney Katherine S. Winfree argued that Newman was a "domineering personality" and pushed Landry around, influencing the career choices she made at the State Department and her choice of a husband. Winfree said that when Slobodow gained custody of the children, Newman and Landry -- close friends since their student days at Goucher College -- concocted a scheme to kill Slobodow.
"Elsa Newman wanted Arlen Slobodow to die," Winfree said. "She couldn't bear to lose custody of her children."
Winfree then showed the jury placards showing snippets of e-mail correspondence between Newman and Elizabeth Morgan, a Chevy Chase plastic surgeon and advocate for the rights of parents of abused children, in which Morgan advised Newman that she had three choices: to obey court orders, flee with the children or kill the abuser.
Yesterday, Winfree also introduced a witness, Sandra Ashley, who was a legal assistant to Friedman. Ashley testified that Newman met her at a Ruth's Chris Steak House in Bethesda before the attack and described the plan Newman and Landry had made to kill Slobodow.
One of Newman's attorneys, Barry H. Helfand, argued in his opening statement that the state had no hard evidence linking Newman to Landry's actions. Instead, he said, Landry, the godmother to the children, created the plan entirely on her own -- and wound up shooting Slobodow only after she discovered him in bed with his son.
"Elsa Newman has worked within the system," Helfand said. "She is a lawyer. She is a mother fighting for her children's safety throughout this entire matter."
As the lawyers argued, Newman took notes on a canary-colored legal pad. During a short recess, Newman walked over to one of her attorneys and asked a question. The lawyer warned her, in a friendly manner, that she would lose her attorney-client privilege because a reporter was standing nearby.
"What haven't I lost?" she replied. "I'm the archfiend of the century."