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Their holiday task: Don't talk or listen

The jurors in Mayor Sheila Dixon's criminal trial are home today, preparing for turkey dinners, post-holiday shopping and one of their greatest challenges since courtroom proceedings began nearly three weeks ago: avoiding news or discussion of the case.

The judge implored the panel to stay away from newspapers, television broadcasts and idle Dixon-related chatter, but few courtroom observers could imagine 12 people spending the next four days in Baltimore without encountering at least a whiff of the criminal case against the city's mayor.

"Maybe 10 years ago you had a chance, but today information is so readily available, I don't know how you keep people away from it," said University of Dayton law professor Thaddeus Hoffmeister, who studies jury dynamics and has followed the Dixon trial.

"Four days in that environment, without being in contact with the judge, without being reminded of their obligations, that's a long time," said Andrew D. Levy, a Baltimore attorney and partner in the law firm Brown, Goldstein & Levy in Baltimore.

"Even if they're scrupulous about not paying attention to the media, they're not insulated from other people's views," Levy said. "And anybody who's been in the city the last couple of weeks knows this is a subject about which people have pretty strong views."

Legal analysts say Judge Dennis M. Sweeney didn't have good options once jurors asked to be dismissed for the day on Wednesday, after their fifth day of deliberating: If he didn't let them go home, he risked forcing a hurried decision from a panel eager to leave for Thanksgiving.

"Either way, he's in a real pickle," Hoffmeister said.

But whether jurors leave for four days or just for lunch, their responsibilities to the trial are the same, Hoffmeister said. Details or opinions gathered outside court can compromise the case and must be disclosed to the judge.

"If they're getting information outside of the courtroom that hasn't been considered by the judge or cross-examined by the defense, then it's really not a fair process," he said.

Jurors might not just hear things they shouldn't, lawyers note. They also could give out privileged information - informal vote counts, perhaps, or details of their closed-door deliberations - that could push defense attorneys or prosecutors toward a side deal if they knew which way the jury was leaning.

And what might be easy to keep quiet on a normal work night could prove slippery after a day of carousing with family and friends.

"Uncle Eddie or somebody, even though he knows better, is going to ask," said University of Baltimore law professor Jose F. Anderson, director of the school's Stephen L. Snyder Center for Litigation Skills.

"It's a situation that puts the jurors under a lot of pressure. The real mystery is, who does that pressure benefit?"

If a juror is exposed to outside information over the Thanksgiving holiday, it would be Sweeney's job to determine whether he or she is still capable of reaching a fair and untainted verdict.

"I think it really is a matter of a good judge making it up as he goes along," said Levy. "There's not a chapter in the judge's bench book that specifically answers these kinds of questions."

Sweeney could ask the jurors if they were exposed to details of the case, or the jurors could disclose it themselves.

At least one juror has already told the judge about an encounter outside the courtroom. On Nov. 19, a juror sent a note to the judge saying she had attended an event in Hampden the night before, unaware that the mayor would also be present. "I just wanted to let you know," the juror wrote.

Dixon faces charges of stealing or misappropriating gift cards given to her by a developer and intended for needy families, as well as gift cards bought by the city for a charity event. She pleaded innocent, and her lawyers say she thought the cards could properly be used on personal items because they had been given to her by a boyfriend.

When Dixon's jury was selected, Sweeney could have considered sequestering jurors - keeping them in a hotel, isolated from the outside. But analysts say that is a cumbersome and expensive option, which can create its own influences on grumpy jurors.

Instead, Sweeney chose the more typical approach. When the jurors were selected Nov. 11, he asked them to be discreet about their service and tell as few people as possible. And he told them not to communicate details of the trial through text messages, "tweeting" or using social media such as Facebook or MySpace.

Two weeks ago, more than 20 prospective jurors were dismissed from consideration because they said information they knew about the case would prevent them from reaching an objective decision.

When he dismissed jurors yesterday, Sweeney told them it was "very, very important" to continue to follow the court's rules against discussion and investigation of the case. He told them "not to communicate in any which way" about the case, then also told them to enjoy their families, rest up and "get some good sleep and be ready to follow through on Monday."

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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