Sheila Dixon

As Mayor Sheila Dixon's trial opens today, Art Patterson, a jury consultant, has some advice for her: "She should be there, and if she's not, it's a big mistake." (Baltimore Sun photo by Gene Sweeney Jr. / May 28, 2009)

Today begins the process of choosing 12 Baltimore residents who will decide whether or not their mayor is a criminal.

As Sheila Dixon's theft trial gets under way, jury selection is not only the curtain-raiser, but also, perhaps, the most important act, according to experts and lawyers not involved in the case.

Race and politics will play critical roles, outside observers say. Dixon's defense team will want jurors who like their mayor and the work she has done, while prosecutors are apt to favor those who will dispassionately review the evidence they present, the observers say.

Dixon, an African-American woman born and raised in West Baltimore, leads a majority-black, heavily Democratic city. The man seeking to persuade 12 people to convict her, State Prosector Robert A. Rohrbaugh, is a white Republican who investigated City Hall misspending allegations for three years before indicting Dixon and a city councilwoman in an unrelated case.

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"We can all act like race is not a factor, but it is," said longtime Baltimore defense attorney Kenneth W. Ravenell. "One or both sides may want an all-black or mostly black jury. There's also the dichotomy of a Republican-appointed prosecutor and a Democratic-sitting mayor. It will be revealing to see who is and is not seated on that jury."

The Dixon team would be wise to select jurors from her political base of older black women, Ravenell and other experienced local attorneys said.

"Not to sound like Al Sharpton, but I'd keep off most white folks," said defense attorney Warren A. Brown. "It's not being racist, but blacks are going to be more sympathetic to a black public official who is being prosecuted."

Ravenell said Dixon, 55, could garner sympathy votes from jurors who personally identify with her as a single mother with two children. And Dixon's relationship with developer Ronald H. Lipscomb, who provided her gifts and is expected to testify against her, could be a factor with the right jurors.

"There may be some women who feel like she's a woman who was dealt a bad blow by someone who was a boyfriend," Ravenell said.

It will be more difficult for 12 jurors to agree on a guilty verdict if one or more of them gives their personal feelings about the mayor's accomplishments more weight than the allegations against her, several outside attorneys said.

Indeed, contrary to how the legal system is supposed to work, Baltimore juries "tend to render verdicts that reflect the way people think the case should resolve itself and not verdicts based on what the evidence dictates," Brown said.

But there's another factor in the theft trial.

Dixon is facing charges that she stole from the poor by buying personal items with gift cards donated by developers for needy families, an "ugly accusation," Brown said, that hampers efforts to predict who will be the best jurors for the defense team.

The selection process, which might not begin until some pretrial motions have been settled, could go on for days as seven defense lawyers and four prosecutors sort through prospective jurors who will be tightly packed into a courtroom in downtown Baltimore. The courthouse clerk summoned 999 potential jurors - the maximum - and anticipates about half will report for duty.

Circuit Judge Dennis M. Sweeney, a retired Howard County judge specially appointed for the City Hall cases, will referee voir dire, a French phrase meaning "to speak the truth." The judge can interview and toss out an unlimited number of prospective jurors whom he believes to be biased.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys also can strike a limited number - four per side, in this case - for any reason. At least four alternates will also be seated, but more could be chosen.

Jury selection can be tedious, but one that experts say the mayor, who denies all charges against her, must endure.

"She should be there, and if she's not, it's a big mistake," said Art Patterson, a jury consultant and social psychologist based in State College, Pa. "The message to the jurors from Day 1 has to be: 'I care. This is very important to me. I did not do this, and there's nothing more important to me than participating in my defense.' "