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Closings set today in Dixon case

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Jurors are set to hear closing arguments today in the criminal theft trial of Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon - without ever having heard from Dixon herself.

The panel of nine women and three men will then begin deliberating the case against the mayor, who is accused of spending gift cards intended for needy families on herself and her aides.

Dixon seemed confident when she spoke briefly with reporters after court Wednesday, though she replied, "No comment," to most questions. Usually outspoken, the mayor seemed to be restraining herself.

"It is hard to say, 'No comment,' " she said, smiling. In answer to a question, she said she will speak publicly about the trial after it ends.

Dixon said it was hard to sit in court silently, as she has for six days, and joked that she wished her lawyers would allow her to stand up and object to some of the testimony given.

The mayor's defense team sought and the judge granted a jury instruction that Dixon's decision not to testify cannot be held against her.

Saying that Dixon had waived her right to speak on her own behalf, defense attorney Dale P. Kelberman told Circuit Judge Dennis M. Sweeney that her lawyers "have had numerous discussions with Ms. Dixon, on many occasions, and discussed the pros and cons" of her taking the stand. "On our advice and with our concurrence, she elected not to testify. We have discussed the consequences of not testifying."

Former Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said Dixon will one day need to address "the court of public opinion."

"If this works out in her favor, my strong feeling is that she needs to talk to the community and try to explain what was going on in her life and what might have led her to do some of the things she did, and then put it behind her," Schmoke said. An explanation will be especially necessary if the mayor wants taxpayer reimbursement for some or all of her legal fees, he said.

Still, he said he understood why she did not testify.

"There is a big difference between having questions thrown at you by a reporter and being cross-examined by a state prosecutor," said Schmoke, a one-time prosecutor and now dean of Howard University's law school. "Even the best of communicators can find it difficult getting their point across when they are getting cross-examined."

Dixon is charged with five theft-related counts, including one felony. But when jurors retire to consider their verdict, they will have to follow a set of instructions that makes it impossible for them to convict her on more than three counts - fewer than half the number she faced when the trial began last week.

She can be convicted of theft or embezzlement but not both, because those charges are based on two contradictory theories: Dixon had no right to possess the gift cards and therefore stole them or Dixon had a right to possess the cards, but misused them.

The judge tossed out two of the original seven counts on Tuesday, when the state rested its case without calling as a witness Ronald H. Lipscomb, a developer who said he'd given Dixon gift cards for charity.

If found guilty of any of the charges, the 55-year-old Democratic mayor could be forced out of office, lose her $83,000 annual pension and be fined or face jail time.

State Prosecutor Robert A. Rohrbaugh has said that his investigation of City Hall, which began in March 2006 when Dixon was City Council president, reveals "cozy relations" between Baltimore's elected leaders and developers. But the jury will determine only whether the mayor is guilty of taking or misusing about $630 worth of gift cards from Target, Best Buy and Toys "R" Us.

Her defense, outlined in opening statements last week, is that she believed some of the gift cards she used were intended as personal gifts. Other cards, which were left over from a charity event and found in Dixon's home when it was raided in June 2008, were ones she had forgotten to return, her lawyers argued.

Dixon faces a separate trial, scheduled for March, on perjury charges related to her failure to disclose on city ethics forms designer clothing and other lavish gifts from Lipscomb, whom she formerly dated.

On Wednesday, Dixon arrived at the downtown courthouse wrapped in a shawl, toting her usual cup of tea from Starbucks. Courtroom observers included East Baltimore City Councilman Bernard "Jack" Young, who sat with the mayor's sister, Janice Dixon, and chatted with the mayor afterward.

Testimony lasted less than an hour. Michael Koletar, owner of The Flower Cart on Harford Road, said he processed a $285 order for a "big, beautiful bouquet" that Lipscomb sent to Dixon. The card was to say: "To Sheila. Anonymous."

The testimony was intended to bolster a defense claim that Dixon frequently received anonymous gifts from Lipscomb while the two were dating and therefore mistakenly believed that a blank envelope filled with gift cards delivered in December 2005 was a token of affection meant for her personal use.

Developer Patrick Turner testified that he donated those gift cards to give to "the children of Baltimore."

Lipscomb's flower purchase was made in January 2004, more than a year before the Turner gift cards showed up at City Hall - a point that Rohrbaugh tried to underline by asking a single question of Koletar, pressing the florist to repeat the date of the delivery.

The final witness for the defense was the mayor's longtime pastor and friend, the Rev. Frank M. Reid III of Bethel AME Church in West Baltimore.

Reid testified that Dixon is an active member of Bethel and that he baptized her two children and serves as her "personal spiritual adviser." He said the two met 31 years ago through a mutual friend in Boston, when he was a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School, and have stayed in touch ever since.

Reid was called as a character witness, the third in Dixon's defense.

"In my dealings with her, she's always been honest and forthright," the pastor said.

Baltimore trial attorney Warren A. Brown, who has observed portions of the Dixon trial, called the defense presentation "lukewarm" and said it would give Rohrbaugh an advantage when making his closing argument.

Prosecutors would not have been able to comment on the defense if Dixon's attorneys had presented no witnesses, Brown said. But since they did put on a case, Rohrbaugh "can criticize it in front of the jury." "He can say in his closing, 'You heard their case. What evidence did they offer you to prove that she, as her lawyer wants you to believe, was operating under the impression that these gift certificates were for her?' " Brown said.

A. Dwight Petit, a defense attorney who watched Wednesday's testimony, said he thought the jurors would have liked to have heard Dixon reassure them that she believed the cards were for her personal use.

But he said it was "the right decision" to keep her off the stand.

"The jury always wants to hear a denial from the defendant," Petit said. "You have to weigh whether it is worth exposing your client."

In this case, he said, the state has had nearly four years to investigate Dixon.

"Why give them the opportunity to delve into her past?" he said.

In an afternoon hearing, Dixon's attorneys persuaded the judge to add several jury instructions that could benefit the mayor.

Jurors will be told that if they believe the defense argument that the mayor did not realize that the gift cards were not personal gifts to her, that conclusion can form the reasonable doubt needed to acquit her.

The judge also approved some prosecution requests. He will tell jurors that they are not to consider the sentences or possible consequences of their decision when weighing Dixon's guilt or innocence. In granting that prosecution request, Sweeney noted the "special dangers" inherent in the mayor's case.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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