Hunger Strike Brings Bizarre DC Murder Trial to Virtual Standstill
WASHINGTON — The already-bizarre criminal case of a slain German socialite and journalist has been brought to a virtual standstill by her husband’s refusal to eat, which has left the defendant unable to sit or stand on his own and at risk of death.
It’s the latest twist in the case against Albrecht Muth, a fellow German expatriate whose behavior has ranged from odd to obstructive since he was charged with the killing.
Muth, nearly a half-century younger than his late wife, has argued unsuccessfully for the right to wear what he said was an Iraqi military uniform in court. He’s fired his public defenders — only to have them reappointed after being deemed too physically incapacitated to represent himself. He’s told the judge he’d follow his own rules and has name-dropped Jesus, David Petraeus and others in court proceedings.
Muth’s fasting prompted a judge to indefinitely postpone the trial, scheduled to start this coming Monday, after a doctor said Muth was too weak to be brought to court and prosecutors and defense lawyers said it wasn’t feasible for him to participate remotely from his hospital bed.
Frustrated prosecutors say Muth, 48, is orchestrating his own unavailability and thwarting their efforts to hold him accountable in the August 2011 slaying, and an exasperated judge says the case remains in “limbo status” until the next court hearing next month.
Muth’s behavior has defied an easy solution: His presence in the courtroom could harm his health and disrupt the proceedings, but his absence could set up an appeal on grounds that the trial was improperly held.
The parties are right to proceed cautiously since a trial without the defendant is an option “reserved for the most bizarre, unheard of collection of circumstances that essentially result in a perfect storm,” said Bernie Grimm, a Washington criminal defense lawyer not involved in the case.
“When a defendant’s not there, it’s just a hornet’s nest for the judge,” he said, adding that a hastily made decision could raise all sorts of bases for an appeal.
Other options have been debated.
Prosecutor Glenn Kirschner suggested at one point that he might seek a court order to force-feed the defendant, but he’s acknowledged that Muth — who’s been hospitalized for two months — might already be too ill for that. Superior Court Judge Russell Canan also considered having Muth appear via a video feed from the hospital. But Kirschner argued that Muth could “very well die on camera, on a two-way video feed” before the jury. He said he saw no way for the trial to proceed on schedule.
“It’s not an approach that the government is comfortable risking a trial, a criminal conviction and a possible reversal on,” Kirschner said.
Drath’s family in a statement Friday said they were “prepared and willing to wait as long as it takes for justice to be served.”
“It is our belief that the person responsible for this brutal and senseless crime against our mother, sister and grandmother, Viola Drath, will be tried and sentenced accordingly,” the statement said.
His starvation, which he claims is for religious reasons, has been the biggest roadblock yet in the strange case that’s included his claims that he was a brigadier general in the Iraqi army and that the killing was an Iranian hit job. Muth began fasting after he was ruled competent to stand trial in December.
The investigation began after Muth reported finding 91-year-old Viola Drath’s beaten and strangled body in the bathroom of the couple’s row home in chic Georgetown, where for years they hosted dinner parties for notable Washingtonians.
Police arrested Muth, who maintains his innocence, after finding no signs of forced entry to the home and observing scratches on his body that suggested a physical struggle. He also aroused suspicion when he presented a document — which prosecutors say was forged — stating that he was entitled to a portion of her estate upon her death. In truth, he was left out of her will, authorities say.
Drath, who contributed columns to The Washington Times and wrote regularly on German affairs, wed Muth in 1990.
The couple’s tumultuous relationship included his prior conviction for beating her, and prosecutors say he leeched onto Drath’s social connections to pass them off as his own. He strolled their neighborhood smoking cigars and sporting a military-style uniform that prosecutors say was actually made for him in South Carolina. He showed off a military certificate that came from a print shop.
Despite his grandiose claims, he lived off a monthly allowance from Drath, had no connection to the Iraqi army or any income of his own, prosecutors say.
Though defendants are entitled to attend every step of their trial, courts in recent years have grappled with where to draw the line on intentionally disruptive behavior.
In 2011, a judge in Washington state temporarily barred a man charged with raping and killing a lesbian couple from his own trial. The trial began with Isaiah Kalebu, who cursed his lawyers and knocked over chairs during pretrial hearings, watching the proceedings by closed-circuit television from another room in the courthouse while chained in a restraint chair. He later testified and was convicted.
That same year, a Chicago-based federal appeals court ruled that a judge was justified in barring two defendants from a gang crimes trial after their tirades disrupted pretrial hearings. The judge permitted them to follow the trial via video feed and told them they could return once they committed to behave. They never returned, and after they were convicted, unsuccessfully appealed the judge’s decision to proceed without them.
“These are difficult cases. The courts seem to be willing to override defendants’ fundamental rights for the sake of having neat and tidy trials,” said John Beal, a lawyer who represented one of the men and who argued that his client should have been given a chance to attend the trial before being barred.
In Muth’s case, a judge has scheduled a hearing for April. It’s not clear whether anything will be different, though.
He has dropped about 30 pounds in the hospital since his fast began and his organs are failing, said Dr. Russom Ghebrai. He did eat and drink last weekend — and has consumed food intermittently in the last few weeks — but then chastised himself for disobeying the orders of the Archangel Gabriel and pledged to begin his fast anew.
He’s shown no signs he intends to permanently resume eating, telling Canan last week that if forced to choose between taking his chances with a jury of “secular-ites” and following his own religious convictions, it would be an easy decision: “I opt for God.”
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