Lawyers duel with dictionaries Trial of Aron suit focuses on details

March 02, 1996|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

Jurors considering whether William E. Brock defamed Ruthann Aron during their 1994 Republican primary campaign for the U.S. Senate are getting a primer on politics and the power of words.

Legal experts say the case, being heard in Anne Arundel Circuit Court, could help set limits on how far candidates for public office may go in attacking opponents.

But so far, lawyers for both sides have not raised their debates to mirror that lofty goal, arguing instead over control of television monitors and haggling over which dictionaries best define such terms as "guilty" and "convict."

The jurors -- four women and two men -- have reviewed Mr. Brock's car phone records, news conference scripts and the datebook of Mr. Brock's pollster, which records a conference call in which Ms. Aron alleges that Mr. Brock plotted her political demise.

They have been schooled in the art of the campaign commercial and the political spin, with the two television screens flanking the jury box replaying the video evidence.

The defense enlisted help from two former congressional representatives from Maryland -- supporters of Mr. Brock -- who testified that Ms. Aron is the one guilty of distortion and shoddy campaign practices.

Ms. Aaron and Mr. Brock have not looked at each other during the weeklong trial.

On the stand, Mr. Brock, a former U.S. senator from Tennessee, has acted defensive and angry about his campaign being called into question. (He won the primary but lost the election.) His wife, Sandra Brock, has been in the courtroom throughout the trial.

Ms. Aron, on and off the witness stand, has adopted a tone of righteous indignation.

L "All I want is my reputation back," she has said repeatedly.

Her husband, Dr. Barry Aron, has spent most of the trial pacing the hallways, having been excluded from the cavernous courtroom because he is a witness.

"She's just been devastated by this," Dr. Aron said of his wife during a break in the trial last week.

Ms. Aron, 53, a Potomac lawyer and real estate developer, contends Mr. Brock defamed her at a Sept. 7, 1994, news conference and in subsequent television commercials in which he said that she had "trouble obeying the law."

She twice had been sued by former business partners, and civil juries found against her in both cases. But the judgments were set aside, and the cases were settled out of court.

T. Joseph Touhey, Mr. Brock's lawyer, has shown the jury an enlarged verdict sheet from the 1984 suit over a land transaction. It clearly shows a box, next to the word "fraud," checked off.

Ms. Aron's lawyers emphasize the Brock campaign's use of the word "convicted" during his news conference, arguing that it was intentionally chosen in a conspiracy to torpedo her rising candidacy.

"The word convicted carries a criminal connotation, doesn't it?" Geoffrey Gitner, Ms. Aron's lawyer, asked Mr. Brock.

"Most people believe that when you lose before a jury that you've been convicted, that's what most people think," Mr. Brock replied. "I was responding to a question from a reporter under a heck of a lot of pressure."

Former U.S. Rep. Marjorie Holt, 76, testified that she went to Mr. Brock's news conference to scold Ms. Aron for distorting his Capitol Hill record. She said she was not reading from a script when she said that "an aura of fraud" surrounded Ms. Aron's candidacy. "That was just the reputation she had," Mrs. Holt said.

Mrs. Holt and former U.S. Sen. J. Glenn Beall criticized Ms. Aron's supporters for forcing their way into the Sept. 7 news conference, waving campaign signs.

Mr. Beall, who said the tactic was "in bad taste," defended Mr. Brock's Senate record.

The case is expected to go to the jury next week.

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