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 fired his public defenders — only to have them reappointed after he was deemed too physically weak to act as his own lawyer. He told the judge he'd follow his own rules and he's 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 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 was in "limbo status" until at least 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 that Muth — who's been hospitalized for two months — might be too ill for that. Superior Court Judge Russell Canan also considered having Muth appear via video link. 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 as scheduled.
"It's not an approach that the government is comfortable risking a trial, a criminal conviction and a possible reversal on," Kirschner 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 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 stabbed 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 has maintained 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 had been removed from her will, authorities say.
Drath, who contributed columns to The Washington Times and wrote 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 walked the 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 Maryland 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 from another room in the courthouse while chained in a restraint chair. He later testified and was convicted.
That same year, a federal appeals court in Chicago 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 on a jail video feed and told them they could return once they committed to behave. After they were convicted in absentia, they unsuccessfully appealed the judge's decision to hold the trial 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 Chicago attorney 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.
Muth 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 a jury of "secular-ites" and his own religious convictions, it was an easy decision: "I opt for God."