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Impressions of court: Dixon's 4-inch heels, sense of inevitability

Trials and ArbitrationJustice SystemRegional AuthorityElections

After watching Mayor Sheila Dixon stand for four hours straight at the judge's bench, next to the mostly male lawyers prosecuting her and those defending her, I thought of that famous line about Ginger Rogers.

The one about how she did everything her much more renowned dance partner Fred Astaire did, only backward and in high heels.

I don't mean to reduce Dixon to her four-inch black pumps. But then, Dixon is not only Baltimore's first female mayor, but its first to be in office and on trial simultaneously. She showed up on the first day of her criminal trial wearing her trademark towering stilettos and a mostly unreadable expression.

That a sitting mayor is standing trial - literally, for the first four hours of a jury selection process that will continue today - should be a shocking sight, regardless of footwear.

I was trying to imagine previous Baltimore mayors similarly on the hot seat. What would that have been like? It was almost unimaginable: William Donald Schaefer, who wore his heart on his sleeve, could he possibly have maintained a neutral courtroom face? Or Martin O'Malley, who wears his ambition on his rolled-up sleeve, could he have contained his emotions while fighting for his political life?

Yet with Dixon, who has been under investigation by the state prosecutor's office since even before being sworn in as mayor, this day seemed inevitable. Maybe the shock comes later, when she raises her hand and is sworn in to testify in her own defense, as many expect her to do.

As jury selection went on - and on and on, from 2:45 in the afternoon to 6:45 in the evening - Dixon seemed to listen intently and watch closely as each potential juror was called to confer with Judge Dennis M. Sweeney and lawyers from both sides. She didn't seem to be asking questions directly of them, although she conferred frequently with her attorneys.

The prospective jurors had already filled out a questionnaire, the details of which have not yet been released, and they had already sat through 15 more questions as a group. Of those, the two that drew the most response were ones about whether they'd already come to a conclusion about the case that they wouldn't be able to put aside as a juror, or whether they'd been a victim of or charged with the same crime that Dixon is accused of, theft.

The process seemed excruciatingly slow, mainly because it was unclear what was going on in the bench huddle. White noise was piped into the courtroom to mask any stray words that might float beyond their tight cluster.

It was hard to know who was being accepted or rejected or why, but the judge expressed optimism that they would pick their 12, plus alternates, this afternoon. Talking to a couple of those sent home, there was a sense of relief - and not just because they didn't want to be pulled out of work or home for the couple weeks the trial is expected to take.

At least for the two women I spoke with, there was a certain empathy for Dixon, the brave face she has kept up as her woes - the gift cards, the affair with the developer who had business before her - have been splashed all over the media and now have landed her in court.

"In a sense I felt kind of sorry for her. The reason why is I feel she's done a lot for the city and she's a hard worker," said Rosetta Lewis, who said she was dismissed from the pool because she believed she would be biased. "When people go through things like this, they break down and get depressed, but she continues to - it seems to me - she strives to do her job. ... I have only respect and admiration for the mayor, someone who could stand strong."

Which seems like it could bode well for the mayor - if she were just a politician in need of a vote. But instead, she is a criminal defendant, looking for, perhaps, the 12 toughest votes in her life.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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