During the summer of 2011, 91-year-old Georgetown socialite Viola Herms Drath was found dead in the spacious home where she entertained politicians, judges and journalists.
Her husband, Albrecht Gero Muth, an eccentric German native who bragged of being an Iraqi general as well as a foreign spy, told authorities that his wife of 22 years died from a fall. But authorities soon concluded that Drath had been beaten and strangled, and they charged Muth with first-degree murder.
On Monday, after nearly two years of delays, Muth, 49, will have his day in court. But in what officials say will be a first in D.C. Superior Court history, the defendant will not be in court for his trial.
The once-strapping Muth, who stands more than 6 feet tall, has sometimes refused to eat during his time in custody. He weighs 92 pounds, and doctors say he is not strong enough to leave his United Medical Center bed for court. Instead, Judge Russell F. Canan ruled, Muth will participate by videoconference.
The trial comes after years of legal proceedings to determine whether Muth would be prosecuted. In the months after his arrest, his attorneys with the Public Defender Service argued their client was mentally incompetent for trial, and Muth was sent to St. Elizabeths Hospital for observation.
After months at the hospital and evaluations by psychiatrists, Canan ruled in December 2012 that Muth was competent. The judge set a trial date in March.
Muth fired his public defenders and said he wanted to represent himself. He said he wanted to wear his military uniform in court, the same outfit that he sported around Georgetown for years, which prosecutors say he bought online. And in several phone calls to a Washington Post reporter, Muth said he planned to call Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and former CIA director David Petraeus as witnesses.
But in early 2013, as the trial date approached, Muth told jail officials that he was visited by the archangel Gabriel. Muth, who at times has likened himself to Moses and Jesus, said Gabriel told him that he should begin a spiritual fast.
Muth stopped eating and was taken from jail to a hospital. Over time, his 170-pound frame withered. The trial was pushed back, and the judge reappointed public defenders because of Muth’s failing health. The fasting continued off and on.
Lately, Muth has been eating some, including butter and sugar, which has helped his organs continue to function, according to court testimony. Doctors said they could not force feed Muth out of fear that it could send his body into shock. Moving him could also be fatal.
Even doctors acknowledge they have been surprised Muth has survived and can still hold short conversations in between dozing off in his hospital bed.
“It’s unusual. It’s baffling us,” said Muth’s physician, Gilbert Daniel, chief of staff at United Medical Center, who spoke during a court hearing Thursday. “Mentally, I think he’s okay, but physically, it would be a challenge.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Glenn Kirschner argued at the hearing that Muth’s fasting has been a delay tactic. “He’s holding the system hostage,” Kirschner said. He said in court that Muth’s choice of foods to eat was “strategic.”
One of Muth’s attorneys, Dana Page, asked that the trial be pushed back a few additional weeks, saying Muth has been eating food such as scrambled eggs and mashed potatoes and could regain his strength.
But Canan has had enough delays. He said Muth has been “manipulating the court and the health system” and ruled that the case would go forward.
On Thursday, court employees buzzed around the courtroom and were dispatched to Muth’s hospital bed, setting up wires and video and sound equipment in preparation for trial. Jury selection is to begin Monday.
Muth will be able to view and listen to the proceedings. But prosecutors argued against allowing the jurors to see Muth in his weakened state out of fear that such a sight could prejudice them. The judge agreed. So, unless Muth testifies, jurors may only hear his voice and see still photos of him prior to his hospitalization.
Prosecutors plan to argue in part that Muth was a con artist and master manipulator who spent years physically abusing Drath and who wanted her money. Drath’s family members, including her two daughters, one of whom is a judge in California, are expected to testify about their mother’s marriage.
Prosecutors also expect to call several witnesses who said they saw Muth shove and yell at Drath in the months and years prior to her death.
Muth’s attorneys have not indicated their defense strategy, although there was no direct evidence such as eyewitnesses or DNA linking Muth to Drath’s death. They also have not indicated whom they plan to call as witnesses.
The trial, which could last about two weeks, is expected to be challenging. During Thursday’s hearing, Canan, the lawyers and court staff were still working out the kinks. Halfway through the hearing, Muth yelled, “I cannot hear anything.” Canan tried to oblige by ordering everyone to remember to speak loudly into the microphones.