November 19, 2009
When he instructs the jurors in the Dixon theft case, Circuit Judge Dennis M. Sweeney will tell them not to infer anything from the defendant's silence during trial - and they certainly should not interpret it as a sign of guilt. The judge will do this, of course, because, by the time her underwhelming defense came to a rest Wednesday morning, Mayor Sheila Dixon had not uttered a single word.
She didn't have to, of course.
Once upon a time, defendants weren't even allowed to testify in their own behalf; it was assumed they would inevitably lie. But in the modern system, it's a defendant's decision, and the mayor of Baltimore - or her attorneys - decided it would be best if she remained mum.
Having the accused testify in any criminal case always comes with risks; prosecutors will do everything possible to impugn the defendant's credibility.
But, still, the mayor of Baltimore doesn't speak to a jury of her peers?
She's accused of taking gift cards intended for needy children in her city, and she doesn't get on the witness stand and, firmly and a little indignantly, offer an explanation?
Of course, once upon a time - like, last week - there was an explanation: The mayor's ex-boyfriend, developer Ronald Lipscomb, showered her with gifts, sometimes anonymously, and the mayor, who was then City Council president, just assumed that gift cards for Best Buy and Target delivered in an unmarked envelope to City Hall were meant for her - and were from Mr. Lipscomb.
That was the story Ms. Dixon's experienced defense attorney, Arnold Weiner, promised in opening statements.
But Mr. Lipscomb is irrelevant now. He's no longer part of the case. State prosecutors did not summon him to court, apparently confident they had proved theft involving gift cards from another developer, Patrick Turner, and from the city's annual Holly Trolley Tour. So, Judge Sweeney threw out the criminal counts against Ms. Dixon that involved Mr. Lipscomb, and he instructed the jury to disregard testimony and evidence linked to him.
The defense, for its part, offered three character witnesses, including the influential West Baltimore pastor Frank M. Reid III. They said they'd always known Sheila Dixon to be an honest woman.
That was all swell. But, in the midst of a criminal trial, testimony about a person's character is fool's gold: looks good, but it doesn't have much value. That she has previously been honest or churchgoing doesn't tell a jury much about whether Ms. Dixon stole gift cards. And while it's nice to have your pastor and others come to the courtroom and say positive things, jurors are savvy enough to recognize that Sheila Dixon would not be mayor had she not accumulated many friends and supporters along the way - and lots of people who might feel indebted to her.
Should the mayor have testified? Many defense attorneys will say no. But one, a lot more experienced with Baltimore Circuit Court juries than those at the mayor's trial table, said she should have. "She's going to need to [testify]. Absolutely, positively," Warren Brown told this newspaper a couple of weeks ago.
Despite what the dutiful and conscientious judge tells them, the jurors, like many citizens of Baltimore, will almost surely wonder why the mayor of our city did not speak up against these tawdry accusations when she had the chance.
Dan Rodricks' column appears Thursdays and Sundays in print and online, and Tuesdays online-only. He is host of the Midday talk show on WYPR-FM.
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