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Reviewing tape before holiday broke deadlock, juror says

An 80-minute videotape viewed by jurors shortly before they adjourned for Thanksgiving provided the breakthrough that led to Mayor Sheila Dixon's conviction, one of the jurors said Tuesday.

Before viewing the tape, which replayed testimony of developer Patrick Turner and other witnesses, three jurors refused to convict the mayor on any charges, according to a 23-year-old Highlandtown woman named Shawana, known during the trial as Juror No. 3. One of those jurors disputed others' recollections that Turner had said the gift cards he gave Dixon were intended for needy children.

When the videotape confirmed Turner's testimony, the three holdouts changed their minds and voted to convict.

"We thought it was a hung jury," said Shawana, who declined to give her last name. "One man said he wasn't going to convict her of anything, no matter what the evidence said. It was that videotape that made the difference."

Only two of the 12 jurors spoke publicly Tuesday, walking down the courthouse steps into an ambush of cameras and reporters. The rest climbed into city Sheriff's Department vehicles inside the building's covered garage and slipped out unseen.

But the accounts of Shawana and Elaine Pollack, a 29-year-old Hampden woman who served as Juror No. 11, describe a tedious and occasionally heated deliberation process that never broke down along racial, gender or socioeconomic lines. Both women say they voted for the mayor in the last election, and both were among the bloc of jurors that persuaded others to reach a unanimous guilty conviction.

Juror opinions changed throughout the deliberations, with some initially staking out firm positions in favor of guilt or innocence. At least three jurors wanted to convict Dixon of felony theft. And at one point, the jury voted unanimously to convict her of two misdemeanor embezzlement charges, but two or three jurors changed their minds and the group announced a deadlock on the second charge, the two jurors said.

Arguments rarely broke out over the evidence in the case, but disagreements arose frequently over issues such as whose turn it was to speak. One juror who initially supported acquittal said once that they could deliberate until New Year's Day and he wouldn't change his mind.

"It's hard to get 12 strangers to agree on what to have for lunch, much less to agree on whether the mayor should be found guilty," Pollack said. "It was a roller-coaster of emotions."

Shawana, who sent a note to the judge Nov. 20 saying deliberations were "getting a little over heated," said she asked to break for the day out of fear that a physical confrontation might have been developing.

From the start of deliberations, a large number of jurors seemed certain Dixon was guilty of something and felt they simply had to sort through the evidence again to determine which charges should result in convictions, said Shawana, adding that she was among the early supporters of a conviction. But three other jurors seemed equally intent on rendering five acquittals.

"They said they didn't want to convict her of anything. They said they didn't have an explanation and didn't have to give one," Shawana said yesterday in a phone interview. "They kept saying 'what if this' or 'what if this,' and people would say: 'We're not talking about what-ifs, it's about the evidence.'

"I mean, it doesn't take a third-grader to go through the evidence and reach a decision, but they wouldn't."

Dixon's role as mayor came up occasionally, including the suggestion that a conviction might result in her ouster from office, but Pollack said the jury found it "easy to put that aside." They knew considering Dixon's political fate was "not what we were supposed to do. If somebody went there, there were many to pull in the reins," she said.

As for the suggestion from Dixon's attorneys that an unmarked envelope of gift cards could have been mistaken for a gift because the mayor's former boyfriend used to send flowers anonymously, Pollack said: "Everyone thought that was a stretch."

More compelling, she said, were the records of phone calls between Turner and Dixon, right before and after he bought gift cards that were given to the mayor. "For me, it was sort of like, 'If the shoe fits.' It seems impossible [the gift cards] didn't come up in either of these conversations."

Both jurors were happy for the three-week experience to end. But both also said they never lost sight of the importance of their role in the criminal justice system.

"You feel like you have somebody's life in your hands, so to speak," Pollack said. "This is the mayor of our city. We love our city, and I know that Sheila Dixon loves our city as well. But there comes a time when we have to put things aside and look at what's right or wrong in the law."

"I felt that she was guilty of theft, and I would have convicted her of all the charges but one," said Shawana. "But in the end, we reached unanimous decisions. This was my first time as a juror, and I think the process worked in the end. She shouldn't have spent those cards on herself."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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