Juror's holdout leads to mistrial in Aron case Majority of jurors criticize colleague at news conference

'A stone wall,' juror says

Defendant returns to house arrest

retrial expected this year

March 31, 1998|By Candus Thomson and Gady A. Epstein | Candus Thomson and Gady A. Epstein,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Debbie M. Price contributed to this article.

One juror's five-day holdout caused a mistrial in Ruthann Aron's murder-for-hire case, upsetting other members of the jury who believe Aron was sane and accountable for her actions.

Aron, seated about 15 feet from the jury, was stone-faced as Montgomery County Circuit Judge Paul McGuckian thanked the jury and sent them home. A friend of Aron's seated in the first row of Courtroom 10 began weeping.

The millionaire developer and former U.S. Senate candidate left quietly for her Potomac home, where she will remain under house arrest until a retrial, expected later this year.

But a majority of jurors did not go quietly, appearing last night at a news conference in the Montgomery County courthouse lobby to criticize the holdout, Shawn Walker.

They said Walker had her own ideas of what constituted lack of criminal responsibility under state law, a stand that frustrated them.

"She was so biased from the beginning," said Carlos Nieto, 48. "Eleven of us, I feel we had the desire to bring the truth to the surface. We told her you shouldn't take personal feelings, you have to go by facts."

Carmen Schloner, 44, agreed. "She didn't want to look at the evidence at all. It was only her own experience."

Walker, 39, is a Silver Spring woman who teaches emotionally disturbed youngsters. She refused twice to comment last night.

Aron, 55, was accused of taking out contracts on her husband, Dr. Barry Aron, and Arthur Kahn, a lawyer. Her lawyers acknowledged she did it, but said mental illness kept her from understanding right from wrong.

The 10 women and two men deliberated five days -- tying a county record for a criminal trial -- and even conducted a mock trial in an attempt to sway Walker.

"We really hit a stone wall," said juror Royce Hernandez, 29, who sat next to Walker during the monthlong trial.

Walker had a private meeting with the judge at the end of deliberations Friday, but after conferring with lawyers from both sides, McGuckian ordered them to return yesterday.

They worked all day, sending out questions to the judge and asking for markers and extra notebooks.

'Come to naught'

But at 4: 40 p.m. any optimism vanished when a solemn-faced McGuckian received a note from the jury forewoman and announced: "The jury has come to naught."

He declared a mistrial 20 minutes later after a brief discussion with the forewoman.

State's Attorney Robert Dean said he was "disappointed, but not discouraged" by the outcome. He vowed to get the earliest possible date for a retrial during a meeting next Tuesday with McGuckian.

Dean downplayed the possibility of a plea bargain.

"Our read on the case is not to bargain away anything," he said.

Defense lawyer Barry Helfand appeared relieved but subdued at a news conference.

"We met on the field of battle," he said. "It takes 12. They didn't get 12."

Helfand said Aron is happy, but "The prospect of having to do it again is very, very troubling [to] her. It's gut-wrenching."

Stephen A. Friedman, attorney for Barry Aron, said his client "is disappointed" and does not relish the prospect of a retrial. "He has two adult children who have found this trial just excruciating. He understands how the system works and will participate through it again."

Friedman added that Barry Aron is "most hopeful that his wife, having seen how this jury came down," will see that a future jury could return a unanimous verdict against her. "He very much hopes that she'll recognize the situation and make arrangements to end this case."

Before closing arguments last Monday, Helfand said his goal was to get each juror to think like a mentally ill person as they

listened to the tapes of Aron talking to the police officer posing as a hit man. A sane juror, he said, would be unable to understand the mind of a mentally ill person.

Aron as victim

The defense, through its seven doctors, sought to portray Aron as a victim and to that end, jurors in this case did not lack for information about her -- from what was described as an abuse-filled childhood to her tumultuous marriage to her rising political fortunes.

And they learned the little things, too: her fear of the dark, her extensive plastic surgery, her love of guns but inability to shoot a rabid animal outside the family home.

What they never saw was Aron on the witness stand.

Her lawyers said their client was too fragile to put on the stand and they would do so only if they thought they were losing the case.

Aron's doctors testified that she suffered from a long list of mental illnesses -- many debilitating -- from borderline personality disorder to major depression to having a second personality clashing with her dominant personality.

Helfand acknowledged he was counseled to stick with one or two disorders and not use "everything but the kitchen sink" because it might confuse the jury or make it suspicious of the legitimacy of the afflictions.

But he said he wanted them to know everything about his client.

The tack initially worked on juror Laura Fox, 32, who voted with Walker on the first day of deliberations. But, she said, she changed her mind on the second day.

"I feel sorry for anybody that has to grow up the way she grew up," said the loan processor from Germantown. "I think it's horrible, but I certainly don't think that it makes someone not understand what they're doing."

Other jurors were surprised that the case ended up in their

hands and ended the way it did.

"During the trial I was thinking Ms. Aron would stand up and say, 'That's it, I've had enough,' " said Nieto, a native of Peru. "In any other country she'd be guilty. It's just common sense."

Pub Date: 3/31/98

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