Judge acts to put jury at ease

As the trial of Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon drew to a close last week, Judge Dennis M. Sweeney descended from his courtroom dais and spoke to jurors at their own level, rather than from on high.

His positioning for the reading of jury instructions was one of many subtle courtesies Sweeney has extended to the nine women and three men on the jury throughout the high-profile theft trial now in its final stages.

Sweeney's rapport with the group of Baltimore residents is critical during tense deliberations that have already spanned 11 hours over two days, legal professionals say.

Jurors are to resume their discussions Monday morning to decide whether the mayor is guilty of stealing gift cards intended for needy families, and at this phase, the judge is "like a coach," said Federal Magistrate Judge Paul W. Grimm.

"It's as if your team is at halftime, and you need to give them a pep talk," Grimm said. "You don't want them to let their guard down and give up, but you don't want to get them wound up too tight, either."

Sweeney, 64, is a retired Howard County judge who was selected in February to preside over the four cases stemming from State Prosecutor Robert A. Rohrbaugh's City Hall corruption probe. Sweeney is widely known in Maryland as a jury expert, teaching new judges how to manage trials and writing an occasional column called "Judge on Juries" for a local legal publication.

Most who know Sweeney note his dry sense of humor and jovial manner. Often, he's been called upon to roast colleagues at retirement parties. Those traits will come in handy, colleagues say, as deliberations in the Dixon case wear on.

Sweeney has seemed protective of the jurors throughout the proceedings.

In an early ruling, he barred sketch artists during jury selection. He's had lunch delivered for them during deliberations. At one point, he allowed a courtroom clerk to bake chocolate-chip cookies for the panel, asking members to return a unanimous verdict on their tastiness.

When jurors asked to go home for the week because deliberations had become "overheated" on Friday, he told them to "do something nice" over the weekend and put the case out of their minds.

Sweeney, Grimm and others say, is "the perfect choice" to shepherd a jury through deliberations in such a high-profile case.

Former colleagues have praised Sweeney's courtroom management abilities, but some lawyers who watched closing arguments on Thursday said he should have worked harder to rein in the crowd that chuckled at lead defense attorney Arnold M. Weiner's jokes and then applauded at the conclusion of his remarks. Afterward, Sweeney banged his gavel and called the outburst "inappropriate."

Sweeney also did not enforce an order prohibiting the use of cell phones inside the courtroom until late in the proceedings.

He declined to be interviewed because of the continuing trial.

A Kentucky native and Georgetown Law School graduate, Sweeney was a legal aid attorney and worked in the state attorney general's office for years before becoming a judge.

Since his 2007 retirement from regular trial duties, he has wrangled with some of the state's most complex court issues. Earlier this year, he oversaw a Court of Special Appeals hearing in a murder case that focused on a trial judge's handling of jury notes.

Stephen H. Sachs, a former Maryland attorney general who hired Sweeney in the 1970s, said the young lawyer was part of a team created to make the office into something more than "mere barristers."

Sweeney undertook an investigation into deplorable conditions at the Maryland Penitentiary in Baltimore and took on the task of professionalizing administrative hearings at state agencies, which until then had been "chaotic."

"It does not exaggerate to say that Dennis Sweeney changed the face of Maryland justice for the better," Sachs said.

Former Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., who kept Sweeney on when elected to succeed Sachs, called Sweeney "a great lawyer" and a "very, very smart" man who was well-liked in the office.

Curran picked Sweeney to represent the state at the U.S. Supreme Court in December 1989 to argue Maryland v. Buie, which centered on whether police could conduct a "protective sweep" of a house without a warrant if they felt nervous that others could be lurking in another room. Sweeney's argument won, and police powers were broadened.

In 1991, Democratic Gov. William Donald Schaefer appointed Sweeney to the Howard County Circuit Court.

Howard County Executive Ken Ulman, who used to practice law and sometimes appeared in Sweeney's courtroom, called him a "fair" judge who possesses "the utmost integrity." He recalled a time when Sweeney persuaded him to do pro bono work for an elderly couple who had been abused by relatives.

"You could tell he really wanted to have things work out right," Ulman said. "He really felt empathy and sympathy."

During his time in Howard, Sweeney oversaw several high-profile cases, including the carjacking-turned-murder of a research chemist and a murder-for-hire plot that landed a grandmother in prison for life. He also served as the county's unofficial foster care adoptions judge for many years. He and his wife adopted two Korean-born daughters, adults now. The couple also has a son.

Sweeney "enjoys cases with academic challenges to them," said Administrative Judge Diane O. Leasure of the Howard County Circuit Court. "He is skilled at cutting through the layers of complexity and getting to the common denominator."

Several thorny issues have surfaced during the Dixon trial, one of the most prominent political cases in Maryland in years.

Sweeney's first major trial ruling came on Nov. 12 when he prohibited the state from presenting testimony from Glenn Charlow - a third Baltimore developer whom prosecutors say bought gift cards intended for charity but used by Dixon.

Financial records supporting Charlow's claims surfaced just days before the trial was set to begin, and the timing bothered Sweeney. "This is not an eleventh-hour revelation, it is a revelation at the eleventh hour and forty-fifth minute," he grumbled at prosecutors.

Days later, when the prosecutors opted not to call Dixon's former boyfriend, developer Ronald H. Lispcomb, as a witness, Sweeney ruled that two theft charges related to cards Lipscomb gave Dixon should be dismissed.

That led Dixon attorney Dale P. Kelberman to ask Sweeney to declare a mistrial, arguing that jurors would never be able to ignore hours of testimony about the Lipscomb charges. Sweeney denied the motion almost immediately.

The judge's swift trial decisions - which could receive scrutiny if the jury finds Dixon guilty and her lawyers decide to appeal - reflect Sweeney's skill at "seeing the essential issue quickly, even in a case like this one with a lot of moving parts," said Grimm, the federal magistrate, who worked with Sweeney in the Maryland attorney general's office.

Sweeney has ties to lawyers on both sides of the Dixon case. Early in his career, he was a federal public defender while Rohrbaugh was a federal prosecutor. And Sweeney and Kelberman worked together for several years in the attorney general's office.

Now that the Dixon trial is in deliberations, Sweeney serves as the only link between the lawyers and the jury. When the jurors send a question to him, he consults with attorneys, but he alone addresses jurors with the answer.

How they view the judge is more important than ever.

"You will get better results out of the jury if they feel reasonably positive about their experience instead of negative," said City Solicitor George Nilson, who knows him from the days when Sweeney worked in the attorney general's office. "You want them to follow your instructions. The best way to do that is to get them to like you and respect you."

Dennis M. Sweeney
Born: July 23, 1945, Louisville, Ky.

Family: Married to Geraldine Sweeney, head of the appellate division in the federal public defender's office.

Children: One son and two adult adopted daughters.

Education: Loyola College in Baltimore, 1967; Georgetown Law School, 1971.

Career highlights: Attorney in the Baltimore legal aid office from 1971 to 1975; assistant federal public defender in 1975; lawyer in the Office of the Maryland Attorney General from 1979 to 1991; Howard County Circuit judge, 1991 to 2007.