"It appears," says Prince George's County attorney Bruce L. Marcus, "that Mr. Helfand is headed toward a defense which will attack the government's assertions that Mrs. Aron had full use of her faculties and was fully aware of the obligations the law imposed upon her."
For such a defense to be successful in cases involving accomplished people, Marcus said, lawyers often need to show that "something unusual, untoward, catastrophic happened to cause a psychic snap and from that point on, [the defendant's] judgment, thinking and appreciation for what was going on was totally clouded and overcome."
Helfand also has raised the issue of domestic abuse, noting obliquely that Ruthann Aron told a jail employee that her husband had abused her.
On the jail intake form, the word "yes" is circled next to an inquiry about current or past domestic abuse.
The jail-house origins of Ruthann Aron's alleged accusation are murky. Friedman said Barry Aron strongly denies any allegation of abuse.
There is nothing in the court or criminal record to suggest that Ruthann Aron, who also is a lawyer, ever complained of abuse to authorities.
Friends say they never saw anything that would indicate such problems.
Instead, friends and acquaintances characterize Barry Aron as a mild-mannered man who supported his wife's political and business aspirations.
Looking for explanations
Still, when defendants, particularly women, are accused of shocking crimes, attorneys often delve into their psyches and pasts -- as far back as childhood -- looking for explanations for their behavior.
Baltimore attorney M. Cristina Gutierrez argued successfully in the late 1980s that Anna Maria Mazza Rescott, a Baltimore woman who killed her two children, should be found not criminally responsible because of postpartum depression.
More recently, Gutierrez argued that depression and the pressures of being Baltimore's first black female comptroller caused Jacqueline F. McLean to steal more than $25,000.
McLean pleaded guilty to the theft and also was convicted on charges of official misconduct.
"I think there is an incredibly high incidence of depression among successful high-profile women," said Gutierrez.
"To that extent, I think there are parallels to Mrs. McLean's case. She suffered from tremendous depression and still does, and public life aggravated that."
Helfand's vague aside about "domestic abuse" in the Ruthann Aron case has prompted some lawyers to note that she is charged with soliciting the murders not only of her husband but also of an attorney who testified against her in a defamation case.
The name of a third lawyer found on a piece of paper in her possession when she was arrested suggests another intended victim, authorities say.
"The abusive-spouse defense rarely works, and I've never heard of a successful abusive-lawyer defense," says Baltimore attorney Weiner.
Desperate cases often produce desperate defenses. Sometimes -- but not often -- they work.
The jury bought Dan White's "Twinkie defense" -- that a diet of junk food made him irrational -- and convicted him of voluntary manslaughter, instead of murder, in the deaths of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk.
More recently and closer to home, the court rejected Montgomery County developer Charles S. Shapiro's argument that his brain was addled by too many Tums and tranquilizers when he pleaded guilty in a failed murder-for-hire scheme.
Shapiro was not allowed to withdraw his admission that he hired a moonlighting Prince George's police officer to kill his 70-year-old cousin, who survived two barrages of gunfire.
Finding a defendant not guilty by reason of insanity -- known in the jargon of Maryland law as "not criminally responsible" -- is extremely difficult.
Federal and state laws across the country were tightened after John W. Hinckley Jr. was sent to a mental hospital instead of prison for the 1981 assassination attempt on President Reagan.
Jurors also have become less receptive to the insanity defense, even with defendants as obviously disturbed as Jeffrey Dahmer, who cut up and ate his victims, and John E. du Pont, who for months was determined too delusional to stand trial in the shooting death of a wrestling coach.
"It's harder to get [a not criminally responsible] finding than to get into Harvard," says Beverly Wise, director of Community Forensic Services for the state health department.
"You have to be seriously mentally ill and you have to meet the standard. It's not a mercy kind of finding."
In Maryland, the state evaluates about 800 defendants a year for criminal responsibility, out of the tens of thousands who enter the criminal justice system.
Only about 5 percent are found to be criminally insane, according to Wise.
Furthermore, such a finding is not a get-out-of-jail-free card, as defendants are often committed for years to a mental hospital.