Ruthann Aron pleads no contest Lawyers say surprise move indicative of client's mental illness

'Saw writing on the wall'

Plea entered just before closing arguments in murder-for-hire trial

July 31, 1998|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

In a move that caught even her lawyers off guard, Ruthann Aron cut short her murder-for-hire retrial yesterday and pleaded no contest to charges that she had put out a contract to have her husband and another man killed.

Aron's decision came at the last minute, just as jurors were preparing to hear closing arguments and begin deliberating.

As opposed to pleading guilty, the "nolo contendere" plea leaves her record technically free of convictions or any admission of guilt.

Montgomery County Circuit Judge Vincent Ferretti Jr. immediately revoked Aron's $25,000 bond, and returned the prominent Potomac developer and one-time U.S. Senate candidate to jail to await sentencing. No date has been set.

Although Aron, 55, is eligible for a sentence ranging from probation to life in prison, state sentencing guidelines in her case call for eight to 18 years.

State's Attorney Robert L. Dean said he would be inclined to recommend a sentence on the high end of that scale.

"I think she and her lawyers saw the writing on the wall," he said. "She threw in the towel, she gave in, and she's where she belongs."

After four weeks of court arguments that mental illness caused her to contract the killings, her lawyers said yesterday Aron's decision in part reflected her mental state.

"I think it's clear our client suffers from one or more mental disorders," said defense lawyer Harry Trainor. "This type of decision-making process is probably classic."

They said she had given them no clue even the day before, when she had asked the judge to postpone closing arguments until Monday so she could compose herself. He denied that request.

Unlike some days, when she arrived at court appearing shaken and almost frail, Aron appeared stoic as she entered the courtroom yesterday. She wore a blue button from the National Alliance of Mental Illness and was more than an hour late.

The next 30 minutes were filled with intense discussions between Aron and her lawyers, first at the defense table, then in a conference room. They were joined by attorney Barry H. Helfand, who represented Aron during the first trial.

'I know what I'm doing'

Returning to the courtroom, Helfand informed the judge that she wanted to change her plea. Aron assured the judge it was not an impulsive decision.

"I've thought about it for a while," she said. "Since the trial began, on and off."

Asked if she felt competent to make the decision, she stood before the judge, her arms tightly crossed at her waist, her right hand gripping a handkerchief.

"I know what I'm doing," she said.

She propped herself with one arm on the defense table as she withdrew her insanity plea in the murder-for-hire scheme against Arthur Kahn, a lawyer who had opposed her in a bitter civil suit.

When she did the same for the plea involving the scheme against her husband, Dr. Barry Aron, she pressed her fingertips to her forehead and appeared faint, removing her glasses and wiping her eyes.

Her lawyers called the decision a positive one, because it would resolve the case once and for all.

"This lets her put it behind her," said attorney Charles Cockerill.

Deputy State's Attorney I. Matthew Campbell opposed the plea, saying it came unusually late in the proceedings, and that Aron had failed to accept responsibility for her actions. The public deserved that much, he said.

'White flag of surrender'

But Ferretti said he felt it was in everyone's interest to accept the plea, given the history of the case and the possibility of another hung jury.

Otherwise, Campbell and co-prosecutor Debra Grimes said they were pleased.

"We're considering this as a raising of the white flag of surrender," said Campbell.

Still outstanding are charges that Aron laced a bowl of homemade chili with drugs in an attempt to kill her husband in April 1997. She is scheduled to face trial in that case in two weeks.

In light of Aron's plea yesterday, Dean said his office would reconsider whether to go forward with that trial.

Barry Aron was described as "very relieved" that the case is over, said his lawyer, Stephen Friedman.

"His only regret is that it wasn't done a year ago," Friedman said. "His opinion is the whole past year has been a profound waste in terms of her own life. She's a very, very talented, smart woman."

Because the plea allows Ruthann Aron to avoid admitting guilt, it cannot be used against her in the $7.5 million civil suit her husband filed against her last month claiming her actions caused him emotional distress.

The plea ended a case that began in May 1997, when Aron approached the owner of a Rockville landfill and told him she wanted his help in finding a hit man. William Mossburg Jr. went to police, who began secretly recording the phone calls between the two. An undercover detective posing as a hit man then continued the conversations with the former Montgomery County politician.

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