Jean Marbella: Mayor kept fighting, even after last bell rang

A plea agreement that settles a case never quite has the drama of a verdict - like a boxing match that ends in a decision rather than a knockout.

But when the boxer is Sheila Dixon, you just knew she wasn't going to go down without a fight. Or a final jab, even after the bout was essentially over.

"She's a tough street lady," as a supporter, state Del. Curt Anderson, says.

But it was in an uncharacteristically small voice that the Baltimore mayor went through the legal motions required of criminal defendants pleading guilty in exchange for lighter sentences - answering the judge's questions on whether she understood she was waiving her right to trial, to presenting witnesses in her defense, to any future appeals.

Yes, yes, yes, she answered, barely audibly, as I thought: Who is this person and what has she done with the shoe-brandishing, blunt-speaking, angrily-e-mailing-from-my-BlackBerry Sheila Dixon that we'd come to know, if not necessarily love, after all these years?

But then, there was a certain surreal, slow-motion-toppling quality to the way Wednesday's events unfolded.

It was a day where the playbook had called for Dixon's lawyers to argue that juror misbehavior and other trial failings required Judge Dennis M. Sweeney to grant the mayor a do-over on the case in which she'd been found guilty of misappropriating gift cards meant for the needy.

The five Facebooking jurors had been called to 'splain themselves, although this was going to happen in chambers rather than in open court, so at least that gave the media something to huff about.

We'd already been greeted upon arrival with a "whereas"-infused official court order saying transcripts of these behind-closed-doors proceedings wouldn't be immediately available. Plus the TV crews weren't allowed to set up mics in front of the courthouse for the lawyers' postmortem interviews, pushed instead beyond the blue lines on the sidewalk that keep smokers at a distance.

But eventually, it became clear that none of this mattered. The day was not going to be about the jurors or a new trial, but a settlement of both the gift cards case and the perjury charges, which were slated to be tried in March.

And as soon as that became clear, there was no way around the fact that whatever the final details, Dixon was going to go down, at least from the mayor's office.

It sort of explains a lot of things, in retrospect, including the oddly pensive interview that Dixon gave to The Baltimore Sun's Annie Linskey on Monday evening, much of what she said sounding like something you'd read in a political obituary. You can describe Dixon's style any number of ways, but self-reflective, at least to the media, isn't one of them.

As it turns out, as State Prosecutor Robert A. Rohrbaugh said Wednesday, Monday was when lawyers from both sides began "talking in earnest" about a plea deal after Team Dixon had reached out to him on New Year's Eve.

She arrived in the courtroom Wednesday seemingly battle-ready, not in the conservative suits of the trial but a bold black-and-white houndstooth one, atop knee-high stiletto-heeled black boots.

But at the defendant's table when the plea deal was announced, she seemed both resigned to her fate and reluctant to accept it. When Sweeney asked if anyone coerced her into the deal, she asked him to repeat the question before settling on, "No." When he asked if she was voluntarily entering into it, she hedged with, "Basically."

But then, a prosecutor started reading the facts of his office's perjury case against her, going on in monotone about the furs-and-frolics, Saks-and-Ritz affair with developer Ronald H. Lipscomb and how he used his company funds to pay for her shopping extravagances. Dixon couldn't sit silently anymore.

"Your honor, those things are not true," she declared. "They are wrong."

Calling out prosecutors when they could still pull out from an agreement that just saved your 80-thou-plus annual pension? Quibbling about, I don't know, one or two dollar figures when you've just agreed to plead guilty to the charge in general?

A total legal faux pas. A total strategic miscue. In other words, a total Dixon moment.

I had to suppress a "You go, girl!" Because for one thing, it was meaningless at that point. Her lawyers settled her down, the deal went through and, come Feb. 4, everything becomes official (barring, that is, any final twist in this ever-unpredictable saga).

But for another, it made me realize who was leaving office. At a time of pre-packaged, entirely predictable professionals, we're losing one of the last of a breed: the impolitic politician.

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