Aron case goes to trial again with new judge New team handling defense on charges of soliciting killings

July 06, 1998|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

Three months after her mistrial, former U.S. Senate candidate Ruthann Aron returns to court today with a new team of lawyers hoping to persuade a new jury that mental illness was to blame when she allegedly hired a hit man to kill her husband and another man.

The prominent Montgomery County developer approaches her second trial with apparent resolve, but a more economical defense plan.

Gone is Barry Helfand, her flamboyant and expensive defense attorney, whom she fired after rejecting his advice to plead guilty. In his place are Charles M. Cockerill and Harry J. Trainor Jr., respected lawyers with styles described as "low-key."

Gone is the costly, state-of-the-art transcription service that allowed instantaneous review of testimony.

The stable of expert witnesses testifying on Aron's behalf may be smaller, too.

"The state has bent over backward to portray Mrs. Aron as a wealthy Potomac developer," Trainor said. "I don't think that's a truly accurate picture. There are issues of economy."

Aron's assets last year were estimated at $1.5 million. Aron, 55, has pleaded not criminally responsible to two counts of solicitation to commit murder and not guilty to charges of attempted murder of her husband, allegedly by lacing his bowl of homemade chili with prescription drugs.

Prosecutors say she coolly plotted the killings of her husband, Dr. Barry Aron, a Montgomery County physician, and Arthur Kahn, a lawyer who testified against her in a slander suit.

She was arrested on June 9 last year after leaving $500 in an envelope at the Gaithersburg Marriott Washingtonian Center. The money was a down payment on $10,000 she had agreed to pay an undercover detective posing as a hit man, police said.

The evidence includes 15 audiotapes of conversations between Aron, the undercover officer and their go-between; the wig, floppy hat and sunglasses police say she was wearing as a disguise when she was arrested; handguns and a holster from her weapons collection; instructions for making a silencer; and fake identification.

If convicted, Aron could receive a sentence of life in prison on each charge. She is scheduled to be tried next month on charges stemming from the chili allegations.

Except for her trips to court, Aron remains under house arrest in her Potomac home. Cockerill and Trainor will say little about the defense strategy, or whether they intend to recall the witnesses who testified during the first trial that Aron suffered from brain damage, childhood sexual abuse and her husband's infidelity.

Her first legal team argued that she was a lifelong victim and that mental illness prevented her from knowing right from wrong. The humiliation of losing the 1994 Republican primary for the U.S. Senate contributed to her depression, her lawyers said during the trial.

Medical issues

"This case is very much about medical issues," Trainor said. "Obviously we will tell the jury as much as we can about her mental health."

The defense also intends to draw attention to the $7.5 million civil suit that Barry Aron filed June 5, claiming that his wife's alleged attempts on his life had caused him severe mental anguish.

"I don't think we can ignore it," Trainor said. "His motives in filing the suit may be questioned during the trial."

The defense also is attempting to subpoena all of Barry Aron's charge account records since 1995 and all cell phone records since 1994. Prosecutors say the move is a fishing expedition for information that is irrelevant to the case.

At least one new witness has surfaced for the prosecution: Paul Kiernan, a Washington lawyer who represented Aron in a civil case brought by her former business partners in the 1980s. Kiernan is expected to testify about a discussion he had with Aron the week before her arrest.

Deputy State's Attorney I. Matthew Campbell declined to comment on that testimony or other aspects of the case.

Lone holdout

The first trial lasted five weeks, ending in a mistrial on March 30 when a single juror refused to convict.

The position of that juror, Shawn Walker, a 39-year-old teacher of mentally disabled children, angered other panel members, who claimed Walker was influenced more by her job experiences and rigid feminist beliefs than by the evidence. But Walker said the medical testimony convinced her that Aron should not be held criminally responsible.

Judge Vincent E. Ferretti Jr., who was assigned the case recently because the original judge had a scheduling conflict, has screened 800 Montgomery County residents for the new jury pool. Of those, 200 will report to the courthouse this morning. Ferretti and the lawyers will select a panel of 12 plus six alternates.

Ferretti will hear arguments tomorrow to resolve legal loose ends. He rejected defense arguments seeking a delay in the trial three weeks ago. Opening statements are scheduled for Wednesday morning. The trial is expected to last three weeks.

Pub Date: 7/06/98

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.