Dixon jurors feeling the heat

Baltimore jurors deciding whether to convict Mayor Sheila Dixon on theft-related charges signaled Friday for the second straight day that deliberations have been tense. They left the courthouse before reaching a verdict and will return Monday for a third day of debate.

At 3:40 p.m. Friday, jurors sent a note to Circuit Judge Dennis M. Sweeney that read: "Things are getting a little overheated. May we be dismissed for the day?"

Sweeney complied with the request, saying, "I think we should take the jurors' guidance."

Lawyers for the prosecution and for Dixon sounded unconcerned about contention among jurors who have been working in a small room for a total of 11 hours. Legal observers keeping tabs on the proceedings said the panel seems to be taking its responsibilities seriously.

"Those who predicted a swift acquittal or conviction have been proven wrong," said Baltimore Federal Magistrate Judge Paul W. Grimm. "It gives you faith in the system."

Dixon sat in the courtroom for most of the day, talking with City Hall staff, friends and attorneys, and sending notes on her BlackBerry. One of her attorneys said it is the most work that the mayor has been able to do in the past two weeks. She is accused of stealing about $630 in gift cards that prosecutors say were intended for the need.

Jurors sent several questions to the judge shortly after starting deliberations Thursday afternoon, but they appear to have made little progress.

"We need to close for the day," read a note written by the jury forewoman at 4:10 p.m. Thursday and made public yesterday morning. "Things are getting a little out of order among us. Thank you."

On Friday evening, the nine women and three men showed little emotion as they sat in the jury box just before the judge dismissed them for the weekend.

When asked about apparent tensions among jurors, Dixon attorney Dale P. Kelberman said, "You pull 12 people off the streets - they're just trying to get along."

State Prosecutor Robert A. Rohrbaugh said he could not infer much from the jurors' notes.

"Obviously, there are jurors on each side who have strong feelings," he said, adding that it was "too early to tell" if the case would end in a hung jury. Deputy State Prosecutor Thomas "Mike" McDonough said, "You drive yourself crazy trying to guess."

Dixon's lead attorney, Arnold M. Weiner, said the jury is "taking the serious charges to heart." He said the hours of deliberation show that the jurors are being "conscientious."

Kenneth W. Ravenell, a local defense attorney not involved in the Dixon case, said the hours of deliberation are "not unusual in a case that involves the mayor of Baltimore City."

"They don't want to be seen as rushing to judgment," he said. "However they come back, they know they're going to be scrutinized."

The mayor is charged with five theft- related counts, including one felony, stemming from a nearly four-year investigation into City Hall corruption that has centered on relationships between public officials and developers who have relied on tax breaks for projects.

At most, Dixon can be convicted of three counts, fewer than half the number she faced when the trial began last week. Under instructions given to the jury, Dixon can be convicted of theft or embezzlement - but not both - because those charges are based on two contradictory theories: Dixon had no right to possess the gift cards and therefore stole them or Dixon had a right to possess the cards, but misused them.

The judge tossed out two of the original seven counts on Tuesday, when the state rested its case without calling as a witness Ronald H. Lipscomb, a developer who said he had given Dixon gift cards for charity.

If found guilty on any of the charges, Dixon, 55, could be forced out of office, lose her $83,000 annual pension and be fined or face jail time.

Walking out of the courtroom, Dixon gave the same response Friday as at the end of court Thursday, "I'm good."

The Democratic mayor has a full schedule this weekend, including attending a turkey giveaway and a ceremony that welcomes Santa to Baltimore. On Friday, supporters and observers filtered in and out of the downtown courtroom, with some nodding off on the wooden benches. East Baltimore City Councilman Warren Branch stopped in briefly, as did state Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, a Baltimore Democrat and public defender who said she has attended some of the Dixon proceedings out of curiosity.

The judge began the day by answering two questions left over from the night before, both from juror No. 10.

Responding to the man's inquiry about the legal definition of "misappropriation," Sweeney directed the jury to refer to the language in their 25-page packet of jury instructions. The judge asked for clarification on a second question from the same juror: "Does intent involve immediacy and a time period?"

Jurors began deliberating but quickly wrote two more notes.

Juror No. 3 asked for a law dictionary. Sweeney called it a "classic question" from a juror and denied the request.

And juror No. 10 took another stab at his earlier question, asking whether the jury could infer intent based on actions that were later taken by the defendant. The question could refer to five unused Toys "R" Us gift cards distributed during a 2007 charity event known as the Holly Trolley tour and found in Dixon's home six months later.

After discussion with the lawyers, Sweeney referred the jurors to specific pages in the jury instructions, specifically the definition of "proof of intent" and "theft."