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How do these jurors go about un-ringing all these tolling bells?

Justice SystemSheila Dixon

One day after jurors in Mayor Sheila Dixon's theft trial were told to disregard evidence and testimony related to Ronald H. Lipscomb and the gift cards prosecutors said he gave her, the first witness called Wednesday was a shop owner who testified about ... a gift Lipscomb bought and sent to Dixon.

As if jurors won't have a hard enough time going all Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind on the two dismissed charges, they got one last reminder of the developer and one-time paramour of the mayor.

Maybe it's me, but being told to forget about something has the exact opposite effect, embedding it even deeper in my memory. That is what jurors, weighing charges that Dixon took gift cards intended for the needy and used them herself, face as they begin deliberations.

Lawyers refer to it the bell that can't be un-rung; writers call it the telling detail - sort of the killer app of a story, something revelatory that illuminates who a person is or what they have done.

Trials are stories happening in real time, and interactively. Lawyers on both sides come up with a narrative to explain their version of what happened. Jurors settle in to be told a story, but also to make some sense, some inferences, to connect scattered plot points.

I wonder what the Dixon jurors will bring into the deliberation room with them, whether they'll be able to separate in their minds the admissible from the stricken, or whether whatever impressions they formed while they listened to testimony and scrutinized exhibits are lodged in their heads for good.

Will they be able to forget, for example, testimony by an aide to Lipscomb, about how he cashed a company check at a liquor store, bought gift cards and was told to deliver them to Dixon's driver, with whom he arranged to meet at night at the Waverly Giant for the handoff?

The Lipscomb employee who testified to all that, Randell Finney, is one of the disappeared in the case, now that two charges related to the developer were dropped. And with Finney go such details that gave pause, such as how he bought 18 little gift bags for 18 Best Buys cards, thus raising the question of why you would need separate packaging if all the cards were, as the defense suggested, a single present from Lipscomb to a single person, Dixon.

Then there was the oddly compelling testimony from the representatives from stores like Old Navy and Circuit City. Maybe I'm a geek for paper trails, but there was something engrossing about how these bloodhounds who follow magnetic strips rather than scents could sometimes trace gift cards from buyer to spender.

As a result of their testimony, I now feel quite conversant on such matters as POS (point of sale, or what you non-cognoscenti might know as the cash register), and why the cashier sometimes asks your phone number (to keep track of your purchasing history).

Usually a rewards card or a credit or debit card helped identify the gift-card spender - which was how investigators were able to trace a Giant card, paid for by Dixon's former boyfriend, that was used by her current one, Housing Department employee Edward Anthony. Jurors are supposed to forget that particularly amusing chain of ownership?

If everything related to the gift cards paid for by Lipscomb has to go away, I guess jurors will also have to forget such memorable testimony as how another of those Giant cards was found in a brown Coach bag hanging on the door of a closet in Dixon's bedroom. Something about the level of detail in that tidbit makes me think if I ever see Dixon carrying a brown Coach bag, I'll instantly think: What gift cards are in there, and where did you get them?

From Day 1, Lipscomb was supposed to be front and center. Dixon lawyer Arnold Weiner said in his opening statement that "what this is about is the relationship that existed between Ronald Lipscomb and Sheila Dixon."

As it turns out, even after Weiner and his team won the dismissal of the Lipscomb-related charges, they still needed to keep him around - on the periphery, if no longer at the heart of it all. They needed to support the notion that Dixon, receiving an envelope of gift cards anonymously at City Hall one day, would have reason to think they were a personal gift from Lipscomb rather than a charitable donation from Turner.

So they called Michael Koletar, whose Flower Cart shop on Harford Road received an order one day in January 2004 from Lipscomb for an upgraded grand bouquet costing $285. He had it sent to City Hall, with a card that said, "To Sheila, Anonymous."

Maybe the store hadn't yet started offering what its Web site currently promotes: "NEW! Flower Cart Giftcards."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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