Ruthann Aron, the former Montgomery County Planning Board member and U.S. Senate candidate who pleaded “no contest” in 1998 to charges that she attempted to hire a contract killer to murder her husband and a Washington, D.C., attorney, is trying to get her plea overturned.
On Tuesday, Victor Wainstein, a lawyer representing Aron, filed a petition in Montgomery County Circuit Court asking a judge to reconsider her plea agreement on the grounds that the night before the closing arguments of her second trial, her former attorney threatened that she would face the possibility of a significant sentence if she did not agree to plead “no contest.” If the petition is granted, it could set up a third trial in the notorious case that featured police tape recordings, possibly poisonous chili and a controversial landfill owner turned informant.
Aron pleaded no contest to two counts of solicitation to commit murder in 1998 and received a three-year jail sentence and five years of probation for attempting to hire a hitman in 1997 to kill her husband, Barry Aron, a prominent local urologist who’s now retired, and D.C. attorney Arthur Kahn, who testified against her in a slander case revolving around her failed bid for a U.S. Senate seat. She was released in October 2000 and has not previously attempted to appeal her plea in the case.
The latest turn in the Aron case now pits her against Barry Helfand, the Rockville attorney who defended her in the first trial, which ended with a hung jury, and then helped negotiate a 36-month jail sentence as part of the plea deal in the second trial after re-entering the case just before closing arguments.
In the new filing, Aron, now 73, alleges that Helfand, who Aron says she fired after the first trial, called her the night before closing arguments in the second trial without consulting her new attorneys—Harry Trainor and Charles Cockerill—and told her she would be sentenced to 20 years in prison if convicted by the jury, or if the trial resulted in a mistrial, she would face a judge who would be far tougher than the one presiding over the trial.
“On July 30, 1998, Mr. Trainor and Mr. Cockerill never gave their closing arguments on behalf of [Aron]. Instead, Mr. Helfand, having unethically re-inserted himself into the process, suddenly appeared in Judge [Vincent] Ferretti’s courtroom,” the petition reads.
The court document also notes that Trainor “was blindsided” and Cockerill “merely stared at Mr. Helfand in anger.” Attempts to contact Barry Aron and Trainor prior to publication were not successful. Helfand said he was offended by the allegations and that they contained “blatant” lies.
The 31-page petition also makes a host of other allegations, including that Aron was in an emotionally vulnerable state—in the midst of a mental breakdown—and couldn’t possibly understand her rights at the time of the second trial. It alleges that Helfand had done legal work for Aron’s husband that had not been properly disclosed and that Aron wasn’t fully made aware of her rights to appeal the plea.
Prior to filing the petition, Aron, who moved to New York after trial and says she is now living in Gaithersburg, held a press conference Tuesday with her attorney and a publicist in a Rockville office building to publicize the publication of her new book Corrupted Justice. Only a Bethesda Beat reporter showed up at the scheduled time.
“Where’s the Associated Press, where’s The Washington Post?” Aron asked her publicist before she began talking about the 800-plus page book she wrote.
Aron said the book lays out the injustice she faced against a Montgomery County judicial system that failed to understand she had been the victim of years of harassment and forced drug abuse at the hands of her husband after failing to win a U.S. Senate Republican primary in 1994.
During a nearly two-hour interview with Bethesda Beat, Aron said prior to being recorded by a Montgomery County detective saying she wanted Barry Aron and Kahn killed, she had been addicted to Xanax and was unable to think clearly and harassed by her husband in an attempt to get her to grant a divorce. She said Billy Mossburg, a local landfill owner who told police she had offered to pay him to kill Aron and Kahn, and the Montgomery County state’s attorney at the time were using her for their own political purposes.
“I know my voice is on the tapes, but I had no intent to kill anybody,” Aron said. “This was partially an event of a broken mind who fell into the hands of a very corrupt individual or individuals.”
Helfand, a well-known Rockville defense attorney whose office contains a framed Montgomery Journal clipping with the headline “MISTRIAL IN ARON CASE” and a pillow embroidered with the words “A good lawyer knows the law, a great lawyer knows the judge,” dismissed Aron’s allegations Wednesday.
“In this petition, as I see it,” Helfand said, “Ruthann has made these comments about my conduct and that I interfered with her case at the very end. I’m telling you directly and clearly that’s a blatant lie.”
Helfand said that he refers to the hung jury in the first trial as the “miracle verdict” and added that, as he recalled, Aron called him just before the closing arguments of the second trial.
“Ruthann actually called me at my home and I didn’t want to take her call. My wife verifies this,” Helfand said. “I said, ‘I can’t talk to you, you have lawyers.’ The next thing you know, the lawyers are on the phone. They tell me, ‘Barry, we can’t win this case, we need to make a bargain. We need you to come back in.’ The very next morning, I go, I make the bargain,” Helfand said.
Helfand said Aron accepted the plea deal in the judge’s chambers and then accepted it in open court.
He added that’s he offended Aron would even make the allegations, considering he believes the 36-month sentence she received was the best outcome she could have expected in the case.
“Understand the last tape, it’s remarkable,” Helfand said, as he described his memory of the tape in which Aron tells Montgomery County Detective Terry Ryan, who she believes is a hitman provided by Mossburg, how she wants her husband and Kahn dead and would like to read about their deaths in the obituaries.
“That’s the last conversation she has with a police officer. If she had 10 million lawyers, how do you overcome that kind of statement, from her own lips, that gets played in court?” Helfand asked.
He added that he previously had a close relationship with Aron, who once attended Thanksgiving dinner at his daughter’s home during her first trial.
Wainstein, Aron’s attorney, said in response to Helfand that a judge will have to determine who to believe in this case.
“As for who called who, that’s a matter for credibility determination,” Wainstein said.
For her part, Aron says she lacked the ability to make proper judgments during both cases and is now pursuing an opportunity to retell her side of the story, which she says is the truth.
“Was I mentally ill at the time? Look, I had a psychotic break, I’m not in denial,” Aron said. “Am I mentally ill today? I don’t think so. I’m not on any mental health medications, I don’t have any mental health delusions, I’m not hearing any voices like I was at the time.”
Ruthann Aron now goes by the name Ruth Ann Aron Green—the Green being a shortened version of her maiden name Greenzweig. In the petition, she claims her no contest plea in the case has hurt her ability to find a job, maintain insurance and participate in a voluntary police academy in Florida, and that newspapers have inaccurately described her no contest plea as a conviction.
When asked why she was bringing the case back into the spotlight, Aron said someone needs to talk about the justice system in the county. “Am I ready? I don’t know. Will I survive? I don’t know, but I know I have to do this.”
Helfand said he doesn’t understand why Aron would try to contest the plea. As for what’s next, he said the state would likely respond to the petition and then a judge would either dismiss the petition or call for an evidentiary hearing.
“I guess we’re going to spend another sensational day in court, is all I can tell you,” Helfand said.
Ramon Korionoff, a spokesman for the Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s Office, said the office can’t comment on the active case, but added “we will work diligently to have this case upheld.”