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As Dixon trial nears end, a demand for 'equal justice'

Dan Rodricks

6:20 PM EST, November 19, 2009

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I am sticking with my instinct: Lindbergh Carpenter Jr. could turn out to be the most effective witness for the prosecution in State v. Dixon. It wasn't so much the testimony he presented, because certainly that of the Baltimore developer Patrick Turner was the most damaging. But Lindbergh Carpenter gave the state an opportunity to remind the attentive jury in Circuit Court East of a principle engraved in the Supreme Court building in Washington and resonant in the memory of every American who paid attention in civics class: Equal Justice Under The Law.

I saw two jurors nod a little when they heard the state prosecutor use those mighty words Thursday, just after noon.

Robert Rohrbaugh is a gray man. He has gray hair and he wears gray suits. His skin looks a little gray. His manner of speaking does not come with much color, either.

In his closing argument, the state prosecutor conceded as much. "I don't have the oratory capabilities of Mr. Weiner," he said, referring to his adversary in the courtroom, Arnold Weiner, Mayor Sheila Dixon's lead defender and a legend among Maryland trial attorneys.

Just minutes before, Mr. Weiner had been animatedly outraged and sarcastic, his voice rising to express scorn for the state's "worthless" case. He mocked and attacked the prosecution, and several of Sheila Dixon's giggling supporters in the rear of the courtroom gallery found all that entertaining. They even gave Mr. Weiner a round of applause when he finished.

But, as vigorous as it was, Mr. Weiner's closing did little to humanize his client. For a defense built mainly on Ms. Dixon's character, the last words of that defense contained precious little from the mayor's life story.

Mr. Rohrbaugh, on the other hand, raised Lindbergh Carpenter.

Here's a man who had several things in common with the mayor: middle-class, African-American, city employee and parent -- and once accused of stealing taxpayer-funded gift cards that were supposed to go to needy children.

The jury was familiar with Mr. Carpenter; he had testified for the prosecution last Monday. His testimony was part narrative, part confession.

As a midlevel assistant commissioner in the housing department, Mr. Carpenter had served as advance man for the Holly Trolley Tour of December 2007. He's the guy who had purchased 120 Toys "R" Us gift cards for distribution to poor children by Mayor Dixon and other officials during the tour.

And, in case you're wondering, the answer is yes – this is the same Holly Trolley Tour from which Ms. Dixon allegedly stole gift cards. State investigators found five of them in her house six months after the tour.

Of course, our mayor has denied theft; her defense claims she came to possess the gift cards lawfully, and that's why we've had two weeks of trial.

Lindbergh Carpenter, on the other hand, admitted to his foolish crime and took his licks last January.

Prosecutors determined that he had stolen seven of the Toys "R" Us cards from the Holly Trolley. Mr. Carpenter lost a city job that paid almost $80,000 a year. And he came into the courtroom last Monday and told his story.

"He told you he took the cards," Shelly Glenn, the assistant state prosecutor, reminded the Dixon jury Thursday morning. "He told you it was inappropriate. ... He told you he was treated as a thief. He told you he lost his job ... This [Dixon case] is no different."

When it was his turn to finish for the state, Mr. Rohrbaugh, in his gray suit, and in his mild voice, took the jury back to Lindbergh Carpenter one more time, and this time with feeling.

"Good people sometimes do bad things," Mr. Rohrbaugh said, and that goes for the former assistant commissioner of housing, or for anyone who steals and breaks a trust.

"Equal justice under the law," Mr. Rohrbaugh said once more, and this time he held his hands in a way that seemed to cradle the words he'd just uttered. "I don't care if you're the lowliest employee of Baltimore City or the mayor of this town, everyone is equal under the law."