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Dixon verdict: The cynics were wrong

Mostly black jury convicted a black, female mayor

Dan Rodricks

December 2, 2009

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All the cynics were wrong this time: A jury of her peers - nine women and three men, the majority of them black - found the city's first African-American female mayor guilty of a crime. We didn't have the jury nullification many had predicted - that is, acquittal in the face of strong, conclusive evidence, something that many lawyers, cops and judges have seen for years in the old courthouses on Calvert Street.

Juries in Baltimore have a rap for being suspicious of police and prosecutors and sympathetic to defendants, most of whom are black. During the past year, I heard many with experience in the city's criminal courts say this would be a slam-dunk for the defense: The jury would deliberate through one pizza lunch, then acquit her, guaranteeing the well-dressed Dixon martyrdom and the mayoralty for as long as she liked.

What we had, instead, was nearly seven full days of deliberations by a jury that took seriously the five theft-related charges that many found too minor to matter, a case supposedly cobbled out of nothing by a Republican prosecutor who had to justify his existence by bringing down a corrupt Democrat. Come on, her supporters often said: It was just a few hundred bucks in gift cards intended for the needy, and no Baltimore jury would overturn the 2007 election on account of Sheila Dixon having a chronic shopping problem. Besides, she gave us single-stream recycling!

They were wrong.

Circuit Judge Dennis M. Sweeney picked the perfect word to describe the jury's effort in the Dixon case: "extraordinary."

Of course, the jury did not find Dixon guilty of everything the state threw at her, including the so-called Holly Trolley charges.

But they found one crime in the bunch - a charge that, from my seat in the courtroom, I thought the state proved in a few hours of impeccable testimony a couple of weeks ago.

Our mayor talked a major commercial real estate developer into buying gift cards for needy children, then used them for herself. That part of the state case seemed strongest and most conclusive, almost like an old-fashioned shakedown by a politician of a mover-and-shaker, except the payoff was gift cards and not cash.

Had the jury found Dixon not guilty of that charge, I would have been shocked and declared "jury nullification."

But it didn't happen.

In fact, by the second full day of deliberations, the Dixon case stopped being "much ado about not so much," in the words of Herb Smith, a McDaniel College political science professor and a city resident. By the fourth day, it was a moral victory for Robert Rohrbaugh, the state prosecutor, and his staff.

Obviously, this jury was not going to give Sheila Dixon a free pass.

"That's not something [taking gift cards for the poor] you can do," one of the jurors, who gave her name as Shawana, told reporters outside the courthouse Tuesday.

Shawana added that she had voted for Dixon two years ago.

By that time, of course, this newspaper had raised loads of questions about the mayor's behavior, decisions and ethical guidance system during her tenure as City Council president. Dixon won the 2007 primary and general elections anyway, and that's called voter nullification.

That's life in a democracy. That's how the system is supposed to work. Like them or not, you live with the results of elections - and jury deliberations.

Dixon supporters will continue to complain that the punishment - conviction on a misdemeanor and possible loss of her office and pension - does not fit the crime. There are a lot bigger offenses being perpetrated every day, many of them by shameless men of far greater power and wealth. Our mayor should just apologize, make retribution and be allowed to stay in the office; she's been doing a good job.

I agree: Our mayor has been doing a good job. But our mayor has not been the apologizing kind, and she has now been found guilty of a pathetic crime contrary to a fundamental standard of honesty. The consequences are serious for good reason: Politicians who win our votes and break our laws lose our trust. They should also lose their jobs.