Aron's appearance counts in her role as defendant Jurors are watching closely during trial

March 15, 1998|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

Lawyers in a Rockville courtroom have spent 11 days portraying two Ruth-ann Arons: an evil, calculating woman capable of paying for murder, and a mentally fragile victim of sexual abuse who is incapable of knowing right from wrong.

But there are two Ruth-ann Arons in the courtroom that the

teams of lawyers don't talk about -- the one the jury sees and the one it does not.

One bows her head on the table in front of her, raps her knuckles against her forehead and sobs when damaging testimony is given. The other engages in pleasantries with courtroom personnel, hands out peanut butter cups and has animated consultations with her lawyers.

As a developer, Montgomery County planning board member and unsuccessful U.S. Senate candidate, Aron was a well-known, often-photographed figure even before her arrest on June 9.

Spectators at the murder-for-hire trial and lawyers dropping in between their own cases have remarked on her contrasting behavior in the courtroom.

Leaning over one of the sketch artists and peering at her drawing of Aron, a lawyer pointed and joked, "That's the one with the jury in the courtroom. Where's the one with them out?"

When Ruthann Aron crumples into sobs-- as she did Thursday when her elderly mother described years of abuse within the family -- is she faking her response? Or is she showing the stress of having the innermost portions of her life poked and debated by the prosecution and defense?

As the trial grinds on in the third-floor courtroom, jurors have watched the defendant closely.

In her corduroy jumpers or long wool skirts worn with blazers, Aron, 55, has maintained an understated appearance and has done nothing to remind the jury of her wealthy Potomac background.

As Barry Helfand, Aron's lawyer, began his presentation one morning, jurors interrupted him with a request: Would he move the easel he was writing on? When he assured them they would have plenty of time to see it during his closing statement, the jurors shook their heads.

"We want to see her," said two of them, pointing across the courtroom at Aron.

The jury is being asked to decide two things: Is Aron guilty of taking out contracts on her husband, Dr. Barry Aron, and another man, and if so, was she sane when she did it?

The first part was settled on Feb. 26, the first day of the trial. In his opening statement, Helfand conceded his client contacted an undercover police officer posing as a hit man.

In the second part, the jury must weigh the testimony of doctors and acquaintances to determine if Aron was sane.

A verdict of not criminally responsible would mean Aron would be committed to a state mental hospital for treatment. If found sane, she would go to prison, possibly for life.

Appearances can be critical in cases where the jury must decide the question of insanity, defense lawyers say. Look too crazy and a jury may suspect it is being taken. Present a businesslike appearance and you may undermine the testimony of your psychiatrists.

Helfand acknowledges his client is under relentless scrutiny.

"Ruthann Aron cannot win the battle of the people looking at her," says Helfand. "When her head goes down naturally and she gets upset, people say it's contrived. When she sits up, people say it's contrived.

"There is nothing she has not done in this case in that courtroom that people have not assumed genuinely the worst from her. Never the best."

Lawyers ordinarily coach their clients about dress and demeanor. In the highest-profile cases, they may hire consultants to advise them on those matters.

Cynthia Ferris, an Anne Arundel prosecutor for 18 years who now hears juvenile cases as a court-appointed master, says appearances aren't everything, but they shouldn't be minimized.

"Most good defense attorneys whose clients have resources make sure they're well dressed," Ferris said. "If you come in with a coat and tie, looking like a U.S. senator, that definitely sways the jury."

Andrew L. Sonner, for 27 years Montgomery County's top prosecutor and now a Court of Special Appeals judge, notes there have been extreme cases where defense lawyers have tried to have their clients make eye contact with a juror or two, then, perhaps, exchange a smile and a nod.

"If they got a return nod, they'd know they'd have one vote not to convict," Sonner says.

Ferris says there are other, often subtle, things that sway a jury that cannot be explained.

"I've had jurors tell me the defendant looked guilty. I don't know what that means," she says.

Aron is no stranger to dramatic presentations.

She took a strong stand in favor of capital punishment during her 1994 Senate primary campaign, citing the murder of her father during a robbery in his upstate New York home.

During a television debate with her opponent, William Brock, Aron said with great emotion that she knew what it felt like to be a victim of violent crime.

And during her defamation suit against Brock, she moved several jurors to tears when she cried uncontrollably at the mention of her father.

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