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Dixon trial maneuvers' effects disputed

Trials and ArbitrationJustice SystemRegional Authority

When jurors resume deliberations this morning in Mayor Sheila Dixon's theft trial, so will area attorneys.

Professional curiosity has vaulted a cadre of lawyers into analysts, breaking down the highs and lows of the case for multiple media outlets and speculating about what the jury is making of the presentations.

At the center of discussions are the legal strategies of the defense, led by Arnold M. Weiner, and prosecution, headed by Maryland State Prosecutor Robert A. Rohrbaugh, who've offered their colleagues much to critique. Many have taken sides based on what they perceive as strengths, and they're anxiously awaiting the outcome to see who's right.

"It's just been a tremendous learning experience," said Douglas Colbert, a University of Maryland School of Law professor who brought his students to court to critique the proceedings. "It allows me to both teach trial and criminal law."

Each side in the trial followed a fairly traditional tack, analyzing attorneys said, with the prosecution focusing on details and documents while the defense tried to paint a bigger, emotional picture about a woman - the city's first female mayor - wronged. But there were some pivotal points along the way that some saw as working particularly for or against Dixon, who pleaded not guilty to charges that she stole gift cards prosecutors say were intended for the needy.

Her lawyer, Weiner, said she believed that the 60 or so gift cards she spent - worth a total of $1,500 - were hers, a romantic gift from then-boyfriend Ronald H. Lipscomb, and not charity from developers. With that claim, made during his opening statement, Weiner departed from the "oops, it was a mistake" defense that had been expected.

It was among the first of several strategy surprises in the trial. Another included fresh allegations about a batch of gift cards from a third developer that were not allowed into evidence because the prosecution didn't offer them sooner. That may have been a critical misstep, because the government's case could have used more muscle, some attorneys said.

"In federal court, they back that dump truck up, and they bury the defendant 14 different ways," said attorney Andrew Levy, who sat in on much of the city Circuit Court trial. "They don't bring the case unless they're in a position to do that. So, from that perspective, it was a little surprising to me that the prosecution's case was not stronger."

Lipscomb himself was a game-changer, many said. The Baltimore developer agreed to testify against his former girlfriend as part of a June plea deal (he pleaded guilty to a campaign finance violation). And the prosecution made much of a plan to hold him to that promise, while Dixon's defense attorneys indicated that they would tear into his credibility.

Then he was never called, leading the judge to also drop two of the seven charges in the case.

Attorneys were stunned, but for different reasons. Some saw a brilliant move that streamlined the prosecution's case and undermined the defense team.

Dixon's lawyers had spent "all their energy attacking the witness through opening statements and letting the jury know this is going to be the bedrock of the defense," then had to shift strategies abruptly, said Andrew White, a Baltimore attorney and former federal prosecutor.

"They're left in a quandary with no factual basis to support their defense," said White, who's used this bait-and-switch tactic himself. "They're sort of stuck."

At the same time, others saw it as a blow to the government, showing that they didn't actually have the case they advertised, according to University of Baltimore law professor Byron Warnken.

Evidence was another hot-button issue. The judge would have dismissed the case if the evidence hadn't been sufficient for a jury to weigh, Levy said.

Developer Patrick Turner testified that he donated gift cards intended for "the children of Baltimore," which, prosecutors say, Dixon actually spent. Gift cards that Dixon was supposed to hand out on a holiday Holly Trolley charity tour were also found in her home, according to investigators, and at least one was given to an employee.

"The prosecution sort of says, here are all the dots, here's how they connect. [Senior Assistant Prosecutor Shelly S.] Glenn did that very nicely," Levy said. "And Weiner gets up and says ... 'They looked through every nook and cranny of her life, if she were really dirty, they would have found more.' "

Specifically, Weiner said, investigators looked through her bedroom drawers.

"I thought that was very effective," Levy said. "The prosecution and the defense are appealing to different parts of the jury's brains."

The defense's job was to create doubts - reasonable doubts- in jurors' minds. Levy thinks Weiner did that, but criminal defense attorney Warren A. Brown is not so sure.

"This is a case where common sense was a friend of the prosecution," Brown said. "The strength of the prosecution's case quite frankly is the evidence. And that evidence is reinforced by the absence of any defense evidence to the contrary, since neither Lipscomb nor the mayor were willing to testify."

The mayor's silence was risky for the defense, some said. The public wanted to hear her speak and firm up the defense story of a mayor under attack. Instead, that was left to her lawyers.

"The high-profile cases require certain special attention to how you will proceed in court and to what extent somehow you respond to the court of public attention," said Baltimore lawyer Paul Mark Sandler.

Weiner played to a sympathetic audience during closing arguments, cracking jokes and getting laughs. It made for compelling news accounts, but it may not have sat well with the jury.

"Most good juries ignore that and do their job," said Sandler, who called the trial teams "excellent."

Brown thought the defense may have overdone it, particularly in its opening statement, which he said "was far too detailed and revealing" and gave too much away.

"It allowed the state to step back and take a different approach," Brown said. "The defense was not impressive, but that's because, in large measure they didn't have a whole lot to work with. If you've got bad ingredients, you're going to have pretty much a bad result. You really couldn't put the mayor on the witness stand, they got outmaneuvered with regard to Lipscomb and so ... they had an uphill battle."

Meanwhile, Levy is just as sure it was the prosecution that left jurors scratching their heads.

Said Levy: "I think that if this is a jury that started out at all skeptical of the prosecution's case, then Arnold gave them a rationale to acquit."

Whatever happens this week, one thing may ease any pain of second guessing. The lawyers are likely to have another opportunity in March, when a second Dixon trial - on perjury charges related to disclosing gifts - is scheduled to begin.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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