DC trial opens in case of slain journalist

January 7, 2014 - 11:04 PM
German Socialite Slain

This May 12, 2004 photo shows German socialite Viola Drath during the annual Woodrow Wilson home garden party and hat contest in Washington. Opening statements are expected in the trial of a German man charged with murdering Drath, his 91-year-old wife, a journalist and socialite. Albrecht Muth is charged with first-degree murder in the August 2011 beating and strangulation death of Viola Drath. Police say the killing took place inside the couple's home in Washington's posh Georgetown neighborhood. (AP Photo/Washington Times, James R. Brantley)

WASHINGTON (AP) — A German man who masqueraded as a well-connected Army general choked his elderly wife to death, searched online for escape plans and claimed to be entitled 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," public defender 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 journalist and playwright, 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 drunken outbursts, occasional threats and acts of violence and side romantic relationships he had with other men, prosecutor Glenn Kirschner said.

Muth pleaded guilty to assaulting Drath in 1992. She alleged in 2006 that he had attacked her during an argument, and a computer repairman recalled seeing him shove her and curse at her during a visit to their home months before the death, Kirschner told the jury.

"This murder was a very long time coming," he said.

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

Muth latched onto Drath's social connections, inventing various personas for himself — including making false claims about being a brigadier general in the Iraqi army. He was known to walk the neighborhood in a purchased military-style uniform and displayed a store-bought military certificate in his house.

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. And he fought unsuccessfully to wear a military uniform to court and to subpoena former CIA director David Petraeus as a potential witness.

On the morning of August 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 jurors.

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

He was arrested several days after the death once police identified him as their suspect.

Muth alerted Fran Drath to her mother's death in what she described as a staccato, passionless voice, insinuating 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 was 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, another of Muth's defense lawyers, suggested the relationship was far closer than her daughter had indicated. Page noted that the couple had affectionate nicknames for each other, threw parties with each other and encouraged each other's eccentricities.

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

Hickein, Muth's lawyer, said there was no DNA link to the killing and that Muth voluntarily reported the death to police 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 follow the proceedings though an electronic hookup in court. He has been fasting intermittently — he says he's following the orders of the archangel Gabriel —and doctors say he is too frail to be brought to court. A judge ruled that Muth, who has resisted multiple urgings to resume eating and regain health, was intentionally making himself unavailable and that the trial could proceed without him.

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