Closing arguments aren't meant to be applause lines for audience

Baltimore Sun

Do I have to explain everything around here?

Is it that difficult to tell the difference between, say, the sofa where you sit to watch your "Judge Judy" episodes and a bench in a real courtroom where an actual trial is going on? Hint: One is harder; consult the part of your anatomy that might have a clue.

Or to distinguish between how you may behave at, say, an "American Idol" viewing party and an official proceeding where a serious matter will be decided by the rules of law and not on whose side gets more audience approval? Hint: There are no numbers flashing anywhere to call in for Adam or Kris.

Maybe I shouldn't be surprised at this point, not when even congressmen can't be expected to refrain from shouting, "You lie," during a speech by the president in the allegedly hallowed chambers of the Capitol.

But the applause that erupted from some of Mayor Sheila Dixon's supporters in the courtroom Thursday after her attorney gave a rousing closing argument in her defense still came as a shock.

If you attend a trial from start to finish, you start living within its enclosed world. You get used to its rules and rhythms, its small dramas and quaint decorum, the rising when the judge enters and leaves the room, the hush expected of you.

And you start getting a little protective of this village that you're inhabiting, however briefly, and everyone in it. You worry about a lawyer who got the flu last week, you get defensive when outsiders tell you they "know" how this jury is going to decide. It even seemed a little sad when the alternates were dismissed from further service and left five empty seats in the jury box.

So maybe that's why the outburst after Arnold Weiner's closing was offensive - like someone coming into your tidy house and tracking mud on the carpet.

Plus, the cheering turned what had been a legal proceeding into a political one. There's probably no way to totally separate Dixon the defendant from Dixon the politician, but that was why the case has been tried with extra insulating measures: painstaking jury selection, conducted mostly in private, the continued anonymity of those ultimately seated.

Dixon's trial, on charges that she stole gift cards intended for the needy, has drawn a smattering of the curious every day, but nothing like the overflow crowd that packed the courtroom for the summations.

"Some of these people I've never seen before," sniffed a woman I've chatted with at the trial, a Dixon supporter who has attended many of the proceedings but had to squeeze in Thursday with the arrivistes.

They came for the spectacle, and then they contributed to it.

But I have to wonder whether their noisy display of support will have unintended consequences. Maybe I was projecting, but I thought jurors looked surprised, if not put off, by the outburst.

Some of the clappers instantly left, indicating they had no interest in hearing the state's rebuttal to Weiner. State Prosecutor Robert A. Rohrbaugh seized an opportunity to take advantage of the display, telling jury members that this was a serious case, and they must decide it on the basis of the evidence.

"It is not to be based on these people out in the audience," he said, angrily pointing to the crowd.

It already had been a good morning for the prosecution. Losing part of its indictment - two charges related to developer and former Dixon boyfriend Ronald H. Lipscomb were dismissed - had the effect of allowing prosecutors to offer a clearer, more distilled summation.

Then it was Weiner's turn, and showtime. He denounced the state's intrusive and nearly four-year investigation into Dixon, one that culminated in a seven-hour rooting through the drawers and closets of her house.

But, as he noted to the jury, he wouldn't get to speak to them again - only the state gets a rebuttal for closings.

Which makes it even more regrettable that the last word from Dixon's side came from those who might have a political dog, but not a legal one, in this fight.

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