First day of Dixon trial

Dixon arrives at the entrance. (Baltimore Sun photo by Jed Kirschbaum / November 9, 2009)

Mayor Sheila Dixon stood before a judge for the first time Monday, the beginning of a long day of jury selection in her criminal theft trial that will resume this morning.

After the mayor's lawyers entered a plea of not guilty on her behalf, much of the opening-day action was conducted out of the earshot of the courtroom audience. For hours, the mayor huddled with defense lawyers and prosecutors at the bench, interviewing potential jurors, while loudspeakers piped white noise into the room.

The Democratic mayor appeared confident as she walked through the front door of Courthouse East in downtown Baltimore just after 9 a.m.

"I'm good," Dixon said to reporters. It was her first time in court; her defense team has handled proceedings on her behalf since her January indictment.

Judge Dennis M. Sweeney, a retired Howard County judge specially appointed for a series of City Hall misspending cases, asked the mayor to stand to mark her initial appearance. Lead defense attorney Arnold M. Weiner helped Dixon, dressed in a dark suit with a fuchsia blouse, to her feet and said she was pleading not guilty to all seven theft-related counts.

Dixon spoke only briefly, saying "Yes, Your Honor," to acknowledge that she had the right to accompany her lawyers during any bench conferences.

Throughout the day, Dixon seemed completely absorbed in tasks relating to the trial and even during recesses did not appear to use her BlackBerry, which she checks routinely during City Hall meetings. The mayor occasionally scribbled in a notebook or whispered to Weiner. Her security detail sat in the rear of the courtroom.

She and her defense team analyzed juror questionnaires through an hour lunch break, though Dixon paused for 15 minutes when sandwiches were delivered from Stone Mill Bakery. The group set up an ad hoc picnic on a marble ledge just outside the courtroom until a sheriff allowed them to eat privately in the jury room.

Leaving the courtroom Monday evening, the mayor said only that the experience had been "interesting." For months, she has repeated the refrain that she is "staying focused" when asked about the trial.

State Prosecutor Robert A. Rohrbaugh, whose pursuit of City Hall corruption cases began in 2006, said nothing that could be heard in open court.

Prosecutors have charged that the mayor stole from the needy when, they say, she purchased items with retail gift cards that local developers donated to her office for charity events.

If convicted on any of the charges, she will have to step down as mayor and forfeit an $83,000 pension and could face a fine or jail time.

Some in the jury pool seemed aware of the stakes. Whispered one potential juror to another: "She could lose her job. And her pension," in an apparent reference to Dixon.

Two elderly women - including one who said she was from Dixon's church - attended the start of the hearing to show support. They and other spectators were cleared from the courtroom once prospective jurors entered.

After lunch, a total of 140 men and women paraded into the courtroom. They filled all but a few of the roughly 30 courtroom gallery benches.

Dixon stood to face the men and woman as they entered the room, clasping her hands in front of her.

The judge then addressed the room, reading aloud a series of questions to determine whether potential jurors could be impartial.

"The bottom line question for you is, 'Can you be a fair juror?' " Sweeney asked. "We will be asking, despite what you have heard or know, if you can put that aside."

In addition to 12 jurors, Sweeney expects to seat at least four alternates in the high-profile case. The judge can dismiss anyone who he believes to be biased. Then, defense attorneys and prosecutors can each reject four people without giving a reason.