Sheila Dixon

After a nearly 4-year probe, the mayor will face charges that she stole and spent gift cards meant for the needy. (Baltimore Sun photo by Kim Hairston / November 4, 2009)

It was a day packed with official events for Mayor Sheila Dixon: approving millions of dollars in contracts at a Board of Estimates meeting, holding a news conference to urge parents to vaccinate their children against swine flu, pushing health care reform at a town hall meeting, surprising a Baltimore school with a visit, even playing bingo at a senior center that she had fought to keep open.

Throughout the day, she assumed multiple roles, from chief executive to mayor-as-mother to champion of communities. But starting Monday, Dixon, who made history as the city's first female mayor, will take on another title: criminal defendant.

The photo-ops and the meetings held in her offices at City Hall will be replaced by days of sitting in a government building across the street, a courtroom on the second floor of Courthouse East. Her coterie of aides will be replaced by some of the state's toughest defense lawyers.

And instead of talking, she'll spend most of her days listening as State Prosecutor Robert A. Rohrbaugh tries to convince 12 city residents in the jury box that Dixon stole gift cards from needy Baltimore families. She'll hear him say that she knowingly used those cards to buy clothes and electronics for her family and friends.

It is an allegation that she has steadfastly denied since she was indicted in January. The mayor's case is the culmination of a nearly four-year investigation that has dogged her since her days as City Council president.

"A lot of truth will come out," Dixon predicts about the trial, which most believe will last about two weeks.

Much is at stake. If the jury convicts her on any of the seven theft-related charges, the Maryland Constitution requires that she step down. If she goes, a cadre of top aides probably would lose jobs amid a change in administrations.

There are also personal repercussions. Dixon, a 55-year-old mother of two, would become ineligible for her roughly $83,000 annual pension. She could become saddled with debt by the fees of her seven defense attorneys. There's also the theoretical possibility of jail time.

Even if she wins this case, Dixon, a Democrat, faces a second trial on two perjury charges.

A victory, though, could provide momentum and help resolve the ethics questions that have lingered since the state prosecutor gained criminal indictments against her in January. And winning opens the possibility that taxpayers might pay for her legal defense, though she has repeatedly declined to comment on the issue.

"She's got this dark cloud hanging over her," said former Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. "It's got to be cleared up for her to be the most effective mayor that she can be."

This case is about what Dixon did with about 60 gift cards - worth roughly $1,500 - that were donated to the city over four years. The cards are split into five distinct batches: Developer Ronald H. Lipscomb provided three batches; another developer, Patrick Turner, provided another group, and the rest of the cards came from the city's Housing Department.

To gain a conviction, prosecutors must persuade the jurors that Dixon intended to steal the gift cards and that harm was done, legal experts say. The defense will have to provide an alternate reason for Dixon to have used the cards, they say. Her attorneys have hinted that the mayor could have mixed up personal cards with those donated for the poor.

Defense attorney Warren A. Brown said it is critical that Dixon appeal to jurors from the witness chair, though her lawyers have not said whether she will take the stand.

"She's going to need to. Absolutely, positively," said Brown, who is considered one of the city's best trial lawyers and is not connected to her defense. "She is going to have to talk to them. Not talk down to them."

The mayor can come across as brash, and will need to watch her body language, he said. "When you have been immersed in power for a while, you take on all of these trappings," he said. The former public school teacher "is going to have to harken back to the day when she was like these jurors, trying to make ends meet."

Brown said the mayor needs to project that image inside and outside the courtroom. She should walk from City Hall to the court, talk to people along the way and thank them for their support, he said. "Show your natural fear," Brown said. "Humanize yourself. Don't be too lofty."

Meanwhile, said David Gray, a law professor at the University of Maryland, prosecutors can build their case on circumstantial evidence.

The state will compel testimony from Dixon's former boyfriend, the gregarious Lipscomb, who pleaded guilty in June to a campaign finance violation in a separate case. He is expected to say that over the course of three years, he donated gift cards to the office of the City Council president - not for Dixon's personal use. In some cases, the cards were spent hours or days after he purchased them, according to court documents.