In surprise, state rests, does not call Lipscomb

Baltimore Sun

Prosecutors rested their case Tuesday against Mayor Sheila Dixon without calling Ronald H. Lipscomb, thought to be their key witness - a decision that prompted the judge to dismiss two theft charges connected to gifts from the developer.

The trial appeared to be winding down, and Circuit Judge Dennis M. Sweeney assured jurors that it was moving quickly. The judge took the prosecutors and defense attorneys into chambers late Tuesday to discuss what jurors should be told before they begin deliberations.

Dixon still faces five theft-related charges, one of which is a felony. Prosecutors say she used gift cards that developer Patrick Turner had donated for charity on herself and her employees and also took gift cards for herself from an annual taxpayer-funded Holly Trolley charity event.

In declining to grant a defense motion to throw out the entire case, the judge seemed unconvinced by the mayor's lawyers' argument that Dixon accidentally spent the gift cards from Turner because she believed they were personal gifts from Lipscomb, a former boyfriend.

"Your theory is, gift cards are just flowing in," Sweeney said at one point, when jurors were not present. "There are so many flowing in? They are just swimming in gift cards?"

About the Holly Trolley cards found at Dixon's home, the judge said, "There are not enough poor children to give them to? At some point, it would dawn on you to bring them back."

The defense began its case with testimony from two of the mayor's friends from church, one of them a city employee and former business associate, who said Dixon is "honest and charitable."

Defense attorneys are to resume their case this morning. They would not say whether they plan to call the mayor or Lipscomb. In the charges that the judge dismissed, Lipscomb's construction company was the source of gift cards intended for the poor that wound up being spent by the mayor, according to testimony.

Lipscomb's absence from the state's case surprised observers in and out of the courtroom. The audience gasped when State Prosecutor Robert A. Rohrbaugh rose and abruptly announced Tuesday morning that he was finished presenting evidence. Prosecutors had called 19 witnesses.

Keeping Lipscomb off the witness stand potentially deprives the mayor's lawyers of the "deceptive and untrustworthy" character they had told the jury that they would attack when he testified. But it could hinder the prosecution's case by leaving the jury confused about the evidence.

When jurors returned to court Tuesday afternoon, the judge informed them that there had been a "significant development" and that the Lipscomb charges were "no longer part of this case."

"You should not concern yourself with the reasons," Sweeney told the stone-faced jurors. Some jurors jotted the names of the six witnesses the judge told them to disregard. The judge also told them to focus only on the charges related to the 2005 Turner gift cards and city housing department's 2007 Holly Trolley tour and said he'd give the jury more instructions later.

Defense attorneys and prosecutors compiled a list of at least 35 pieces of evidence that are now irrelevant to the trial.

Rohrbaugh has been investigating Dixon since March 2006, when she was City Council president. Dixon was indicted in January and faces another trial, scheduled for March, on perjury charges for allegedly failing to report lavish gifts from Lipscomb.

Lipscomb has been a critical part of that investigation since at least November 2007, when his construction company offices and a storage unit were raided. Prosecutors pursued him relentlessly and struck a deal in June that required his cooperation in the Dixon case.

He said in grand jury testimony made public in court motions that he believed he was donating gift cards to Dixon's office for charity, saying that he was told to buy cards in denominations of $50 for families and $25 for single mothers. He sent an employee, Randell Finney, to buy the cards in 2005 and 2006. Finney, who testified Friday, also bought gift envelopes for individual cards.

Prosecutors might have changed their strategy after hearing lead defense attorney Arnold M. Weiner's opening statement, in which he vowed to disparage Lipscomb and his company if Lipscomb took the stand. Weiner described Lipscomb as an untrustworthy paramour who showered Dixon with gifts, sometimes anonymously.

That argument was meant to show that Dixon believed she had a right to spend gift cards from Lipscomb as she wished, and that she mistakenly thought that an unmarked envelope full of 40 gift cards from Turner was actually from Lipscomb.

"In light of that opening statement, we knew we would have to re-evaluate," Rohrbaugh told the judge as he argued against the defense motion to dismiss the case.

Sweeney agreed to toss out the counts related to Lipscomb, saying that no evidence had been presented about why Lipscomb's company gave Dixon the gift cards. The lack of evidence, the judge said, would require jurors to traverse "a bridge too far" to find the mayor guilty.

With the Lipscomb counts removed from the trial, jurors are left to evaluate evidence about Dixon's connection to gift cards from Turner and the Holly Trolley event.

Turner testified Monday that he made a note to himself that the gift cards from Target and Best Buy were "charity" expenses.

Under defense questioning, he said he might have left the cards in an unmarked envelope at Dixon's office and that Dixon never acknowledged the donations. However, in redirect examination, a prosecutor reminded him that he had told a grand jury that he believed he had received a thank-you note from Dixon.

State investigators testified that they found several Toys "R" Us gift cards purchased for the city-sponsored 2007 Holly Trolley Tour at Dixon's home when they raided it in June 2008. Dixon gave another of those cards to a wealthy staff member, testimony revealed.

On Tuesday afternoon, jurors heard from two defense witnesses, women whom Dixon had met through Bethel AME Church in West Baltimore, where she has long been a member. Both were character witnesses who testified that they knew Dixon to be an honest person.

Wanda Watts, a city employee who said she met Dixon about 1979, testified that she and Dixon briefly ran a business importing handbags from Ghana in the early 1980s.

Asked by defense attorney Melissa Phinn to share her opinion of Dixon, Watts replied, "She is one of the most honest people I know. And she's sincere. ... She works hard for the citizens of Baltimore."

Prosecutors asked few questions of Watts and Karen Daniels, an administrative assistant at Bethel. Rohrbaugh asked Daniels whether she had ever been shopping with Dixon. Daniels said she had not.

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