Aron Wins Ruling Against Split Trial; Prosecutors Wanted Guilt, Mental State Considered Separately

A Montgomery County judge gave lawyers for Ruthann Aron a tactical victory yesterday, ruling that her murder-for-hire trial be unified into a single phase addressing both her guilt or innocence and her mental status at the time of the alleged crime.

Circuit Judge Paul A. McGuckian had ruled last December, at the request of prosecutors, that Aron’s trial next week be split into two phases — first to consider the question of guilt, then, if she were found guilty, to examine her mental state.

In reversing himself, McGuckian said he concluded that bifurcation could lengthen the trial, complicate its logistics and hamper Aron’s defense. Aron, once a prominent county politician, has pleaded not criminally responsible to charges that she tried to hire a hit man last June to kill her husband, Barry, and Arthur G. Kahn, a Baltimore lawyer who testified against her in a lawsuit stemming from an unsuccessful 1994 election campaign. During a two-hour hearing yesterday, Aron’s lawyers argued that they would be handicapped legally and logistically by what would be essentially two trials if the case were divided. Defense witnesses probably would have to be called twice, as could Aron, if she chose to testify, her lawyers argued. “Sometimes a defendant who is on the stand for a long time. . . . loses their appeal for a jury,” Barry H.Helfand, one of Aron’s lawyers, told the judge. Expert witnesses who are doctors or specialists would be kept away from their practices for an unusually long time, and it would be a “tremendous expense for us to defend ourselves,” Helfand argued. In addition, Aron’s lawyers contended that bifurcation could prevent them from getting their insanity defense into the minds of jurors early in the case. “Judge,” Helfand pleaded, “you just can’t. . . . tie any defendant’s hands as strictly as (the prosecutors) want them tied.”

The office of the state’s attorney declined comment on the judge’s ruling. Aron’s lawyers were elated. “It allows us to address all of the very real issues in question in the case at one time,” said Judith R. Catterton, another of the defendant’s three attorneys. “It allows us to explain everything that needs to be explained to the jury at one time, as opposed to in pieces.

It allows us to provide a comprehensive defense.” Aron is accused of approaching well-known county trash site operator William H. Mossburg Jr. to have Kahn killed. Mossburg alerted authorities, who then used him and a police detective posing as a hit man to tape-record Aron allegedly arranging for the murder of Kahn, and later her husband, who had just requested a divorce. She has pleaded not guilty to charges she tried to poison her husband by spiking his chili with drugs on an earlier occasion. Trial in that case is scheduled for April. Aron was arrested June 9. Her lawyers so far have not seriously contested the facts in the case, but have said they want to argue that she was not responsible for her acts because of mental disorders she suffers. But prosecutors wanted two orderly phases to the trial — one to establish guilt or innocence, the other to look at the mental issue.

So they took advantage of an aspect of state law that allows them to request bifurcation and push the mental issue to the second phase. McGuckian granted that request, but agreed to hear fresh arguments when the defense asked him to reconsider last week. Prosecutors yesterday begged the judge not to change his mind. “If we don’t bifurcate,” predicted Deputy State’s Attorney I. Matthew Campbell, “what we will end up with is a big, mucky, mushy mess.” No matter, Helfand told the judge: “It’s your job to separate the muck.”