D.C. Trial Opens in Case of Slain Journalist

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    NEWSLETTERS

    William Hennessy

    A German man who masqueraded as a well-connected general choked his elderly wife to death, searched online for escape plans and made false claims to part of the socialite's estate, a prosecutor said at the man's murder trial Tuesday.

    But Albrecht Muth's lawyer said during opening statements that his client is innocent and that prosecutors have no evidence linking him to the death of the 91-year-old victim.

    Charged with first-degree murder, Muth could face life in prison if convicted.

    “Albrecht Muth didn't kill his wife. The government has their theory but that's all it is -- a theory,” attorney Craig Hickein said. “And they can't prove that he did it because he didn't.”

    Muth, 49, is standing trial two and a half years after Viola Drath, a German-born writer and socialite, was found strangled and fatally beaten in the couple's row home in Washington's posh Georgetown neighborhood.

     

    The death brought an end to a marriage marred by Muth's angry outbursts, occasional acts of violence and side relationships he had with other men, prosecutor Glenn Kirschner said.

    Muth pleaded guilty to assaulting Drath in 1992 and she called her grandson in 2006 to report that he had attacked her and dumped a bowl of soup on her head during a fight, Kirschner said.

    "This murder was a very long time coming," he told jurors in D.C. Superior Court.

    The unusual relationship -- the couple wed in 1990 -- united a socialite well-known in diplomatic and political circles with a fellow expatriate nearly half a century younger.

    Muth latched onto Drath's social connections, inventing various personas for himself -- including of false claims being a brigadier general in the Iraqi army. He was known to stroll the neighborhood in a purchased military-style uniform. Drath's daughter, Fran Drath, testified Tuesday that Muth, curiously, was wearing an eye patch when she met him.

    Those eccentricities continued even after Muth's arrest. His self-imposed bouts of starvation for what he says are religious reasons have resulted in prolonged hospital stays and his absence from the trial. He also fought unsuccessfully to wear a military-style uniform to court and to subpoena former CIA director David Petraeus as a potential witness.

    On the morning of Aug. 12, 2011, Muth called police to report having found his wife dead in a third-floor bathroom of their home. There were no signs of forced entry to the home during the overnight hours when Drath is believed to have been killed, and a neighbor reported having heard a faint cry and a man's laugh, Kirschner told the jury.

    Detectives who examined Muth's laptop computer after Drath's death found Google searches for "crossing the Canadian border," extradition arrangements with Mexico and flights to Iceland, Kirschner said.

    Muth was arrested several days later, after detectives identified him as their suspect.

    Muth alerted Fran Drath to her mother's death in what she described as a staccato, passionless voice, insinuating that she had died after a fall.

    Then he presented her with a type-written amendment to her will -- with spaces for both his signature and his wife's -- stating that he was entitled to up to $200,000 from her estate upon her death. In reality, Drath had specifically disinherited Muth in a will that had been executed months earlier, prosecutors say.

    "It's clumsy. It's callous. It's calculated. It's motive for murder," Kirschner said of the bogus codicil.

    The prosecutor showed Fran Drath a copy of the document Tuesday and asked her about a signature purported to be from mother on the piece of paper. "It doesn't look right," she said.

    But on cross-examination, Dana Page, one of Muth's defense lawyers, suggested that the relationship was far closer than her daughter had said. Page noted that the couple had affectionate nicknames for each other, threw parties with each other and encouraged each other's eccentricities, such as when Muth decided to change his name to Count Albi.

    "They were co-conspirators in all of this," Page said.

     

    Hickein, Muth's public defender, said there was no DNA link to the killing. He pointed out that Muth called police on his own and agreed to extensive interviews with detectives.

    "Albrecht Muth didn't flee. He didn't hide. He didn't need to," Hickein said.

    Muth, though absent from the trial, is able to observe the proceedings through videoconference. He has been fasting intermittently, and doctors say he is too frail to be brought to court. A judge earlier ruled that Muth was intentionally making himself unavailable for trial and that the case could proceed without him.