WASHINGTON — The trial of a German man charged with killing his 91-year-old journalist wife in Georgetown should move forward later this month even if the ailing defendant is too weak to come to court, a judge said Thursday.
District of Columbia Superior Court Judge Russell Canan denied a prosecutor’s request to postpone Albrecht Muth’s first-degree murder trial, currently scheduled for March 25. But he agreed to revisit the decision next week in the event Muth’s condition worsens.
Muth is gravely ill and at risk of death because of a months-long fast that has left him bedridden and unable to sit or stand on his own, according to a doctor’s testimony. Even though Muth is too weak to be transported from the hospital to the courtroom, technology would permit him to participate remotely in the trial, Canan said. Muth participated via speakerphone from a hospital bed on Thursday, and did the same in the last several court hearings.
The judge said that although he was not inclined to postpone the trial, he would hold another hearing Tuesday to evaluate Muth’s status. A separate debate over DNA retesting could also cause a trial delay.
Muth, 48, has been hospitalized since January after starving himself for religious reasons. Russom Ghebrai, an internist who has treated Muth, testified that he remains at imminent risk of death, though he did resume eating and drinking some during the weekend and continues to display mental sharpness. Ghebrai said he could not endorse bringing Muth to the hospital for his trial, even on a stretcher.
Muth is charged in the August 2011 strangulation and beating death Viola Drath, a German journalist and socialite, inside the couple’s row home in Georgetown. Prosecutors say Muth was upset about the size of his monthly allowance from Drath and eager to acquire a portion of her estate upon her death. Muth, who has claimed to be a brigadier general in the Iraqi army, has denied any wrongdoing and has suggested Drath was killed in an Iranian hit job.
Prosecutor Glenn Kirschner asked the judge to postpone the trial so that he could explore the feasibility of having Muth force-fed, even though he may be too ill for that option. He said the goal should be restoring Muth’s physical ability to attend the trial in person, though he also accused Muth of “wrongdoing” by willfully making himself unable to attend his own trial.
“He is volitionally orchestrating his own unavailability, particularly by eating and stopping and eating and stopping,” Kirschner said.
Canan instructed Muth to end his fast, but Muth suggested he’d continue starving himself in obedience to a higher power. He said that instead of going to trial and “trying my luck with a bunch of secular-ites,” he would “opt for God.”
“I follow my orders. You follow your orders,” Muth told Canan at one point.
Canan also read aloud a letter from the German embassy expressing concern about Muth’s condition and urging the judge to use “your powers to ensure that Mr. Muth’s health can be stabilized and his fasting does not leave him in grave danger.”
The judge did not immediately rule on a request to move the case out of Washington because of extensive pretrial publicity. Defense lawyers say it will be “next to impossible” to find a prospective juror unfamiliar with the case.
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