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Hunger strike hinders DC murder trial plans

Friday - 3/22/2013, 4:56pm  ET

FILE - This May 12, 2004 file photo shows German socialite Viola Drath during the annual Woodrow Wilson home garden party and hat contest in Washington. Drath's husband, Albrecht Muth, who is charged in his wife’s August 2011 death, has refused to eat. He’s now unable to sit or stand on his own and is at risk of death. The fasting promoted a judge this week to indefinitely postpone the trial, which was scheduled to start this coming Monday in D.C. Superior Court. A doctor said Muth was too weak to be brought to court and prosecutors and defense lawyers agreed that it wasn’t feasible for him to participate remotely from his hospital bed. (AP Photo/Washington Times, James R. Brantley, File)

Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- 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.

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