Trial of Husband Opens in Scientist’s Slaying

Marc A. Friedlander does not recall firing 16 9mm bullets at his estranged wife last July in a parking lot of the Mitre Corp., his attorney told a Fairfax County jury yesterday on the opening day of Friedlander’s murder trial.

Friedlander, represented by Barry H. Helfand, pleaded not guilty and not guilty by reason of insanity to a charge that he murdered Zitta Friedlander.

Fairfax Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr. told the jury otherwise. “He was then, and he is now, sane,” Horan said.

The prosecutor maintains that Friedlander, who was engaged in a bitter divorce and tug of war over the couple’s two sons, knew exactly what he was doing on the afternoon of July 5, when he opened fire on his estranged 41-year-old wife, striking her 13 times in the head, back and thigh.

Helfand countered that his client, who turned himself in to police the day after the shooting, has no recollection of leaning out the window of his blue and white Ford van outside the Mitre Corp., where Zitta Friedlander was employed as a $70,000-a-year scientist. However, he told the jury, if Friedlander were asked if he shot her, his client would respond “most probably.”

The defense attorney painted a picture of a self-employed scientist whose life revolved around his two sons, now 9 and 11. Both Friedlanders held doctorates in physics from Columbia University, where they met and were married in 1969.

Until they separated in June 1986, Helfand said, his client was the primary caretaker of the children. He watched cartoons with them on Saturdays and let them ride on his shoulders when he mowed the lawn at his home in Gaithersburg, Helfand said.

But all that changed dramatically, the attorney said, when “this conniving woman” did everything to keep the children away from their father. Zitta Friedlander, whose job it was to evaluate weapons for the Strategic Defense Initiative program, applied her “what-will-it-take-to-win” strategies to her private life, he said.

The resulting custody battle generated trial testimony nearly 9 inches thick and left a distraught Friedlander with supervised visitation rights, said Helfand, who took a swipe at what he called an uncaring Montgomery County court system. His first overnight visitation unraveled the weekend before the shooting occurred, he said.

At the conclusion of the trial, which is expected to last into next week, Horan said he will ask the jury to find Friedlander guilty of first-degree murder and a firearms charge.

Helfand said the couple’s two young sons will take the stand in their father’s defense.