As first Aron trial ends, 2nd to begin She faces charges in 2 weeks in alleged chili poisoning

March 23, 1998|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

Ruthann Aron's encounter with the legal system might be far from over, despite the fact that a Rockville jury is likely to begin deliberations today in her murder-for-hire trial.

Her lawyers have promised an appeal if the jury finds she was mentally competent when she hired a hit man to kill her husband and a lawyer.

Aron, 55, is scheduled to stand trial two weeks from now in the same Montgomery County courthouse on attempted murder charges.

Prosectors say that on April 24, about a month before she took out a contract on her husband, Aron tried to kill Dr. Barry Aron by poisoning his bowl of homemade chili. Specifically, the charges are attempted murder, knowingly and willfully poisoning food, and attempted poisoning.

The attempted murder charge carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. Knowingly and willfully poisoning food is an offense that carries a maximum 20-year penalty, and attempted poisoning of a person carries a 10-year penalty. Aron's lawyer, Barry Helfand, calls the case "preposterous" and "impossible to prove."

The state's attorney's office has declined to say whether it will drop the attempted murder and poisoning charges if it gets a conviction in the current case.

If the jury finds Aron mentally incompetent, she is expected to go to court on the charges in the chili-poisoning case because of the nature of her pleas and the timing of the incident.

Even as he is preparing for that trial, Helfand must muster every bit of his oratorical skills in today's closing argument to persuade the jury of 10 women and two men to find his client not criminally responsible.

The defense conceded on the first day of the trial that Aron arranged with a police officer posing as a hit man to kill her husband and lawyer Arthur Kahn. But her four lawyers want the jury to find that their client was mentally impaired and unable to understand the consequences of her actions.

Helfand, known for his outgoing and confident demeanor, sounded dejected Thursday when asked to predict the jury's verdict.

"I'd like to think it's close, but it's impossible to tell," Helfand said. "If I lose this case, I hope this judge understands she needs help, not prison."

Aron's defense team, including two doctors, insist she is mentally ill. One of her intended targets, husband Barry Aron, agrees.

She has been portrayed by her lawyers as a severely depressed victim of child abuse who snapped after a humiliating political defeat and being told by her husband of more than 30 years that he wanted a divorce.

"I don't think she belongs in jail," said Helfand. "She didn't ask for this. She wants to be like you and me. She needs treatment. She needs peace, peace."

But as Helfand has noted repeatedly, launching a successful insanity defense is very difficult.

According to state statistics, about 800 defendants a year are evaluated for criminal responsibility, out of the tens of thousands who enter the criminal justice system. Only about 5 percent -- or 40 -- are found to be so mentally impaired that they don't appreciate the difference between right and wrong.

Helfand tried to improve his chances by adding to the defense team Judith Catterton, who helped write Maryland's insanity law. But even Catterton has downplayed their chances.

If Aron is found criminally responsible on the two murder solicitation charges, her sentence could range from probation to two consecutive life terms.

Faced with the possibility of prison, the former Potomac developer likely will dip into her deep pockets to continue financing her legal crusade. Helfand declined to say how much the case has cost so far. Psychiatrists and psychologists who evaluated Aron and testified have ranged in price from $200 to $500 a hour.

Aron has weapons, including one incident that could lead to a mistrial today or eventually become part of an appeal.

Despite efforts to keep from prejudicing the jury with any mention of the so-called "chili" trial, it has twice come up.

The more serious miscue occurred March 2. William Mossburg Jr., a witness for the prosecution, blurted out that the reason Aron wanted to hire a hit man was because "she mixed up a batch of chili and it didn't work and she wanted professional help."

At the time, Helfand told Judge Paul McGuckian that the defense would not move for a mistrial but wanted to reserve the possibility of making the motion later.

The defense also has a number of unsuccessful motions, including a constitutional challenge, to consider for an appeal.

The defense, said lawyer Erik Bolog, "has a lot of arrows in our quiver."

Pub Date: 3/23/98

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