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Dixon's fate in jurors' hands

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Twelve Baltimore residents are now deciding the fate of Mayor Sheila Dixon, who stands accused of five criminal charges involving theft or embezzlement of gift cards. The jurors deliberated for about four hours Thursday, sending the judge several questions before the end of the day.

In closing arguments after five days of testimony, Dixon's lead attorney called the state's case "worthless," while prosecutors tried to cast doubt on the mayor's defense - that she had mistakenly used gift cards donated for charity by one developer, believing that they were from another developer whom she had dated.

Moments after the judge had dismissed jurors for the day about 4:30 p.m., they buzzed the courtroom to signal that they had a question. The judge brought the jurors, now wearing their coats, back into the courtroom and told them to stop thinking about the case for the evening.

"The best thing for you to do right now is to go away," Circuit Judge Dennis M. Sweeney told the jurors, who laughed and nodded.

Dixon, who did not testify at her trial, said she felt good as she left the courthouse.

In summing up the case against Dixon for the jury, Senior Assistant State Prosecutor Shelly S. Glenn had pointed to the mayor and said, "This woman did not get this far in life if she was that easily confused."

The prosecutor offered a theory on why Dixon would want batches of gift cards around the holidays: Dixon, she said, played Santa by giving her staff gift cards that were meant to go to the city's poor.

"What's the benefit to her? She didn't have to go out to her bank and get out money and buy these presents," Glenn said.

Lead Dixon attorney Arnold M. Weiner directed jurors' attention to the length of State Prosecutor Robert A. Rohrbaugh's investigation, which is nearing four years and began during Dixon's tenure as City Council president. He said the investigation and a seven-hour search of Dixon's West Baltimore home last year showed "a lack of respect." The prosecution's case, he said, "leaves all sorts of blanks."

Weiner pointed to procedural victories as evidence that the case was "thin," reminding jurors that two theft counts related to Dixon's former boyfriend, developer Ronald H. Lipscomb, had been thrown out.

Jurors were told by the judge not to consider any evidence they heard about those charges, which Weiner said leaves them in a difficult position. "What is put on you is the job of trying to remember what you are supposed to forget," he said.

Weiner characterized developer Patrick Turner, who donated gift cards that Dixon used, as a "sheepish" witness who looked uncomfortable on the stand because he "feels responsible" for the charges.

Turner had testified that in December 2005, he purchased 40 gift cards "for the children of Baltimore" and might have put them in a blank envelope. The cards were delivered to Dixon's office. Her attorneys argued that she assumed the cards were a personal gift from Lipscomb and that she had the right to use them.

But Glenn pointed to a pattern of phone calls between Turner and Dixon on her city-issued BlackBerry, showing that Turner had called Dixon just before and just after making the gift card purchases on Dec. 13, 2005.

"They had to be discussing that purchase," the prosecutor said. Glenn also noted that Dixon had called Turner the next year and asked him to donate again.

Dixon used 19 of the 20 Best Buy cards within five days, buying a camcorder and cassettes that state investigators seized from her home. Within seven days, records showed, Dixon spent several of the 20 Target cards from Turner. Her purchases totaled about $525, prosecutors said.

The other set of theft-related charges that Dixon faces stem from six Toys "R" Us gift cards purchased in 2007 with city money for the Holly Trolley tour, an annual Christmas giveaway in low-income neighborhoods.

Five unused cards were found at Dixon's home. Her lead attorney acknowledged that Dixon handed a $20 card from that batch to a wealthy aide.

"This would be a triviality if it was not what [prosecutors] are converting it into," Weiner said. "Would you dream of finding anyone in perversion of duties for handing out one $20 gift card?"

The prosecutors, he said, are "willing to believe the worst" about Dixon. "To them, if there is a transaction, it has to be criminal." He asked jurors to "put the finish point" on the "relentless pursuit" by finding Dixon not guilty.

After Weiner's remarks, Rohrbaugh rose to make a final statement to the jury, something prosecutors can do because they have the burden of proof in a criminal case.

Defending the length of his investigation, Rohrbaugh said the work had been "thorough."

He tried to counter Weiner's assertion that the Holly Trolley cards amounted to a "triviality" by saying the size of the theft was not at issue.

"Those cards were meant for needy children to bring a little joy around Christmastime," Rohrbaugh said. "The children and the citizens of Baltimore expect and deserve the highest level of integrity from their public officials."

He stood close to the jury box, often speaking softly to the panel and gesturing with his glasses. The state prosecutor told jurors he does not "possess the oratory abilities" of Weiner but said the mayor's attorney had to resort to theatrics because he "cannot escape the evidence."

Rohrbaugh returned to a central theme of the prosecution's case, asking whether anyone on the jury could believe that Dixon's offices at City Hall were that "confused" and "disorganized."

Before the nine women and three men on the jury resume work this morning, prosecutors and defense attorneys are to discuss how to answer the questions they submitted at the end of Thursday's session.

The jurors asked the judge for a legal definition of "misappropriation" and whether "intent to deprive" a person of property and "misappropriation" involve "immediacy or a time period."

The questions appear to stem from two embezzlement charges that would apply if the jury determines that Dixon legally obtained the gift cards on behalf of the needy but then misused them by spending them on herself. The second question might refer to the unused Holly Trolley gift cards found in Dixon's home six months after the event. Jurors had asked earlier for a transcript of witness testimony, but lawyers for both sides objected and the judge denied the request.

Weiner said it was normal for jurors to have questions. Rohrbaugh, responding to a reporter who asked what the questions might mean for his case, said "your tea leaf reading is as good as mine."

More than on other trial days, the courtroom was populated by City Hall employees, including a deputy mayor, Dixon's chief of staff and other high-level aides. The Democratic mayor's supporters filled the courtroom benches during closing arguments, and some laughed as Weiner ridiculed the prosecution. They applauded at the conclusion of the defense attorney's remarks, drawing a rebuke from Sweeney.

Dixon, along with her lawyers and the prosecutors, returned to the courtroom whenever the jury had a question. Sweeney would read the question aloud, then hear from both sides before crafting an answer.

Among the crowd in the morning was Councilman Robert W. Curran, who said, "I went there, like a host of Baltimoreans. ... I was there to support our mayor." He is the third member of the City Council to attend some portion of the proceedings.

Joseph Armstead, who said he has known Dixon since high school, listened to closing arguments and said he appreciated Weiner's style. "He had a little humor," Armstead said. "I think he related well to the jury."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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