Amid hints of gridlock, Dixon jury to press on

Jurors in the theft trial of Sheila Dixon signaled Monday that they were stymied on one or more charges against the Baltimore mayor, then abruptly changed course and asked the judge to let them resume deliberations this morning.

The flurry of activity, after six days of discussions and a four-day holiday break, gave no clear indication of where the jurors might be headed.

After the jury forewoman dispatched a note declaring that the jurors "can not come to a unanymous[sic] decision on all counts," presiding Judge Dennis M. Sweeney prepared to inquire whether they had reached a verdict on any of the five theft-related counts.

But before he could put the question to them, the forewoman sent another note to the packed courtroom, asking for more time. "We feel that we need to return tomorrow to continue deliberations, due to new things brought to light," the note read. There was no elaboration.

Sweeney dismissed the jury for the day at 4 p.m., without probing more into what, if any, counts the panel of nine women and three men had agreed upon. The jury has deliberated for about 38 hours and is to return at 9 a.m. today.

The judge told the lawyers that he would give the jurors no special instructions this morning. If the jury again says it is unable to return a unanimous verdict on all counts, Sweeney can accept a partial verdict and declare a mistrial on the remaining counts or send the jury back to continue deliberating.

As he dismissed the jurors, Sweeney told them, "We're taking our guidance based on your last note. ... Come back tomorrow morning and we will take it from there."

Some nodded in response to Sweeney's typical admonition to refrain from outside investigation, discussion and media reports about the case, but they otherwise showed no emotion.

It was the jury's first reference to discord since the second day of deliberations, Nov. 20. At the end of the first and second days, jurors referred to their discussions as "out of order" and overheated." However, by the end of Day Two, jurors had twice reported "progress" in notes to the judge.

Since then, they have inquired about legal definitions and reviewed a video recording of three witnesses testifying.

Dixon's defense team renewed its motion for a mistrial several times Monday and opposed all communication between the judge and the jury.

"Time itself has become the most coercive factor," said Dale P. Kelberman, a Dixon attorney. In response to the note about "new things brought to light," lead defense attorney Arnold M. Weiner argued that the jury must be referring to information they'd learned outside of the trial, which is forbidden.

Sweeney denied all mistrial requests. He said there was no need to apply "lawyer-like precision" to the phrase "new things brought to light," saying it could mean anything.

State Prosecutor Robert A. Rohrbaugh urged the judge to let the jury keep deliberating. "They must have some game plan," he said of the jurors. He added, "I'm not sure why" they would want to quit for the day without hearing the judge's response to the note about not being able to reach a unanimous decision.

Weiner said after court that the jury "seemed not to be able to reach a verdict but decided to give it one final try tomorrow." Rohrbaugh said he had "no idea" what the jury's notes could mean.

Sweeney, a retired Howard County judge who is considered a jury expert in the state, has agreed to dismiss the jury for the night each time they've made that request, sometimes as early as about 3:30 p.m.

He said Monday that he wanted to tell the jurors that they should continue deliberating later than usual on Tuesday, if need be. But he abandoned that idea when prosecutors and defense attorneys objected because, they said, such comments could be viewed as "coercive."

Dixon is charged with theft or misappropriation for using gift cards on herself that prosecutors say were purchased by a developer to be given to needy families. She is also charged with theft or misappropriation and misconduct in office in connection with gift cards that were purchased by the city housing department for a holiday charity event.

The Democratic mayor could lose her job and pension and be fined or jailed if convicted of any of the five counts. Because prosecutors used different legal theories in charging Dixon, she can be convicted of a maximum of three counts.

Dixon remained upbeat as she sat in the courtroom throughout most of the day. As she left the courthouse, she said, smiling, "It's a good day. No comment."

As usual during the trial, which began Nov. 9 with two days of jury selection, a group of city employees and Dixon supporters joined the mayor in the courtroom. Public Works Director David Scott, First Deputy Mayor Andrew Frank, and Dixon chief of staff Demaune Millard were among those milling about the downtown courtroom on Monday.

The two substantive notes from the jury forewoman arrived at 3:15 and 3:45 p.m.

Earlier, jurors had sent at least three notes with typical requests, to take a break and to use their cell phones, which are not allowed in the jury room. One note, which a court spokesman characterized as containing "personal information" about a juror, was not made public.

After Day 6 of jury deliberations, developments were limited to:

• No verdict

• Signs of deadlock emerge

• Jury to return this morning

• Defense mistrial motions denied again