Dixon theft trial opens with plea of not guilty

Dixon arrives at the entrance.
Dixon arrives at the entrance. (Baltimore Sun photo by Jed Kirschbaum)
Mayor Sheila Dixon stood before a judge for the first time Monday, the beginning of a long day of jury selection in her criminal theft trial that will resume this morning.

After the mayor's lawyers entered a plea of not guilty on her behalf, much of the opening-day action was conducted out of the earshot of the courtroom audience. For hours, the mayor huddled with defense lawyers and prosecutors at the bench, interviewing potential jurors, while loudspeakers piped white noise into the room.

The Democratic mayor appeared confident as she walked through the front door of Courthouse East in downtown Baltimore just after 9 a.m.

"I'm good," Dixon said to reporters. It was her first time in court; her defense team has handled proceedings on her behalf since her January indictment.

Judge Dennis M. Sweeney, a retired Howard County judge specially appointed for a series of City Hall misspending cases, asked the mayor to stand to mark her initial appearance. Lead defense attorney Arnold M. Weiner helped Dixon, dressed in a dark suit with a fuchsia blouse, to her feet and said she was pleading not guilty to all seven theft-related counts.

Dixon spoke only briefly, saying "Yes, Your Honor," to acknowledge that she had the right to accompany her lawyers during any bench conferences.

Throughout the day, Dixon seemed completely absorbed in tasks relating to the trial and even during recesses did not appear to use her BlackBerry, which she checks routinely during City Hall meetings. The mayor occasionally scribbled in a notebook or whispered to Weiner. Her security detail sat in the rear of the courtroom.

She and her defense team analyzed juror questionnaires through an hour lunch break, though Dixon paused for 15 minutes when sandwiches were delivered from Stone Mill Bakery. The group set up an ad hoc picnic on a marble ledge just outside the courtroom until a sheriff allowed them to eat privately in the jury room.

Leaving the courtroom Monday evening, the mayor said only that the experience had been "interesting." For months, she has repeated the refrain that she is "staying focused" when asked about the trial.

State Prosecutor Robert A. Rohrbaugh, whose pursuit of City Hall corruption cases began in 2006, said nothing that could be heard in open court.

Prosecutors have charged that the mayor stole from the needy when, they say, she purchased items with retail gift cards that local developers donated to her office for charity events.

If convicted on any of the charges, she will have to step down as mayor and forfeit an $83,000 pension and could face a fine or jail time.

Some in the jury pool seemed aware of the stakes. Whispered one potential juror to another: "She could lose her job. And her pension," in an apparent reference to Dixon.

Two elderly women - including one who said she was from Dixon's church - attended the start of the hearing to show support. They and other spectators were cleared from the courtroom once prospective jurors entered.

After lunch, a total of 140 men and women paraded into the courtroom. They filled all but a few of the roughly 30 courtroom gallery benches.

Dixon stood to face the men and woman as they entered the room, clasping her hands in front of her.

The judge then addressed the room, reading aloud a series of questions to determine whether potential jurors could be impartial.

"The bottom line question for you is, 'Can you be a fair juror?' " Sweeney asked. "We will be asking, despite what you have heard or know, if you can put that aside."

In addition to 12 jurors, Sweeney expects to seat at least four alternates in the high-profile case. The judge can dismiss anyone who he believes to be biased. Then, defense attorneys and prosecutors can each reject four people without giving a reason.

In response to the judge's questions, 21 people indicated that they had already formed opinions of Dixon's guilt or innocence that could not be swayed by evidence presented at trial. The same number said they had either been a victim of theft or had been charged with theft.

Six reported harboring biases either for or against elected officials. Fourteen said they had had an experience with law enforcement in the past that would impair their ability to judge the case fairly. Ten said they could not be fair for some other unspecified reason.

Next, clerks called jurors by their numbers, one by one, to the bench. There, the judge, defense attorneys and prosecutors interviewed possible jurors. Throughout, Dixon stood at the bench with her team.

About 70 potential jurors were interviewed over 4 1/2 hours; the remainder will be interviewed this morning.

The judge predicted at the outset that jury selection would be burdensome and "a real challenge for everyone."

Whether jurors were dismissed by Sweeney or asked to return was a mystery: All were given papers and left through a rear courtroom door that leads to a secure hallway.

One woman appeared elated to be removed from the jury pool and gave those remaining behind a thumbs-up as she left.

"Don't be so happy," Sweeney quipped.

The crowded courtroom grew warmer, causing prospective jurors to fan themselves with jury papers. Some chatted, prompting the judge to ask several times for quiet.

Near the end of the day, as patience wore thin in the courtroom, Sweeney apologized for the slow pace.

But he added that "this is a very serious matter of great importance to the parties involved."

The courthouse clerk had summoned 999 Baltimore citizens for jury duty, the maximum number allowed, and predicted about half would show up. The Dixon case drained the jury pool Monday, Baltimore court officials said.

"As you may know," Judge Wanda K. Heard explained to one defendant whose case she postponed, "there's another case that's taken basically all the jurors today."

The mayor also faces a separate trial, set for March 1, on perjury charges. In that case, prosecutors say Dixon failed to disclose lavish gifts from her then-boyfriend, Ronald H. Lipscomb, a developer who has received millions of dollars in tax credits from City Hall. She was City Council president at the time.

Both the theft and the perjury charges were first brought in January after a nearly three-year investigation by Rohrbaugh, who in recent months has frequently complained about what he sees as a "cozy" relationship between Baltimore developers and City Hall.

In addition to Dixon, the prosecutor has investigated two city developers - securing guilty pleas from both for exceeding Maryland's campaign contribution limits. He also successfully sought an indictment of a city councilwoman for campaign finance violations.

Dixon's trial is by far the most prominent case to emerge from the investigation.

Baltimore Sun reporter Tricia Bishop contributed to this article.