Aron jurors hopeful of reaching a verdict Panel's note eases fears of a mistrial

March 28, 1998|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Gady A. Epstein contributed to this article.

Jurors who had been on the verge of a costly stalemate in Ruthann Aron's murder-for-hire trial signaled yesterday that they may be able to reach a verdict after all.

"We feel we can make progress toward resolution," the jury said in a note to Montgomery County Circuit Judge Paul McGuckian near the end of its fourth day of deliberation.

"We are taking a new tack as you suggested."

The judge had advised the 10 women and two men on the panel on Thursday to take a step back and look at the trial record "with a new perspective."

The jury has been grappling with whether Aron, 55, is mentally capable of understanding right from wrong.

The Potomac businesswoman is charged with two counts of solicitation to commit murder for hiring a hit man last June in an unsuccessful attempt to kill her husband, Dr. Barry Aron, and lawyer Arthur Kahn.

Her lawyers have told the jury she committed the crimes, but they say Aron had a number of mental disorders that made it impossible for her to understand the consequences of her actions.

If the jurors find Aron guilty, she could be sentenced to prison.

If they find her guilty but not criminally responsible, she would be sent to Clifton T. Perkins Hospital Center for evaluation and treatment.

Yesterday, at the urging of the defense team, the judge sent a note to the forewoman asking whether she thought there was a reason to continue deliberating.

McGuckian told the forewoman not to consider the note a form of pressure, even though its arrival in midafternoon could have been interpreted as a sign of impatience.

In fact, the content was reassuring rather than intimidating: "We are prepared to stay with you so long as there is hope for ultimate resolution."

The positive response was back in a matter of minutes, bringing sighs of relief and smiles from the judge and lawyers.

They had feared a mistrial and had started to prepare for an expensive and time-consuming retrial as early as April 6.

McGuckian ordered the jury to return at 9 a.m. Monday.

Impaneled on Feb. 25, the jury has deliberated 25 hours, reviewing testimony from 47 witnesses that filled 3,729 pages of transcript.

Lawyers for both sides and McGuckian say that given the complexity of the case and volume of information, the four days of deliberation are understandable.

But it is unusual in Montgomery County for a jury to take more than two days to render a verdict.

Defense lawyer Barry Helfand, who asked twice yesterday for a mistrial, said he knows what is at stake for the jury.

"They do not want to be known as a hung jury," he said. "I think they think of hanging as failing."

However, Helfand said that although the jurors appear to work well together, he thinks it is time to stop.

"The continued deliberation now becomes oppressive to the minority," he said. "How long before normal willpower is overcome?"

The fear of a mistrial was raised again briefly as court recessed last night.

A juror spoke privately for 15 minutes with the judge; then the prosecutors and defense team went into McGuckian's chambers.

When they emerged, the lawyers said the judge had placed them under a gag order about the juror's concerns.

But Helfand quickly dispelled speculation about a potential mistrial. "It's going to go forward. It's going to go forward with 12 jurors," he said.

The hours of waiting have spawned a joking rapport between the judge and jurors in Courtroom 10.

"In case you haven't noticed, it's a really beautiful day outside," McGuckian teased them as they arrived yesterday morning.

While telling them they would be taking a late lunch break, he turned and pointed to the spectators.

"Who has one o'clock?" he asked, alluding to a pool on the timing of the verdict.

As Helfand raised his hand, the forewoman laughed and said: "We're the lottery?"

McGuckian, who had been bantering with the jurors about pushing up the thermostat and sweating them out, tried a different approach as the afternoon temperature outside soared past 80.

"How's the air conditioning working?" he asked.

"Good," the jury replied.

Said McGuckian to much laughter, "That's too bad."

Pub Date: 3/28/98

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