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Dixon trial just one of city's problems, but an important one

Of course, there are bigger issues, and bigger offenses against society, than the alleged theft of gift cards by the mayor of Baltimore. Monday morning, you could walk across North Calvert Street, from Courthouse East to the Mitchell Courthouse, and find an auctioneer in a suit on the broad sidewalk there and, promptly at the top of the hour, he started a sale of houses upon which a bank has foreclosed in the lingering aftermath of the subprime mess and the massive financial meltdown that pushed us into recession.

Two investors showed up for the auction, a young woman with a BlackBerry and a guy in a rain jacket. They were silent; they did not bid. So the bank ended up with the properties. This is the way it goes, over and over again, as the nation steps awkwardly through the drizzly, smoky ruins of the housing market bust.

Obviously, there are more urgent matters than Sheila Dixon and gift cards from Target.

On a side street, a block from the grand old courthouse where the Dixon jury deliberates, you found homeless men hanging around the entrance of a parking garage. Suddenly an ambulance came screaming down the street, its siren reverberating between tall buildings. A young woman in a windbreaker waved the ambulance down and pointed toward a skinny man in a flannel shirt slumped in a wheelchair in the light rain at midday.

Of course, you can always find something more important than Sheila Dixon's shopping spree at Best Buy.

You could walk into a second-floor courtroom, just a few yards from where the Dixon trial has been staged, and see a 17-year-old kid accused of killing another young man as part of a gang initiation – a clear reminder, if you needed one, about the violence and the chaos that still afflicts large swaths of Baltimore, to the east and to the west of downtown.

All that, and we're worried about gift cards from Toys "R" Us in the mayor's bedroom?

You could stand in the marbled hallway of the courthouse, outside the Dixon courtroom, and hear an agitated man, perhaps one who forgot his prescribed medication, speak gibberish loudly to three courthouse deputies who try to talk to him and calm him down – a reminder, if you needed one, of the troubled adults who wander the streets.

Of course, there are bigger issues than five gift cards from the Holly Trolley. You and I could spend the next year naming all the problems and issues facing the nation and the city that are more important than State v. Dixon.

But that's beside the point.

I hear people say this frequently: "This is nothing. This is about gift cards. Is that all they've got?"

To which I ask: If it had been cash, would it have made a difference to you? And further: If you were the state prosecutor and you had come up with something that looked distinctly like theft by a public official, would you have just ignored it? Would you have said, "They were just gift cards, and this is the mayor – the first African-American, female mayor – and we're not going to go after the mayor over gift cards"? Is that how it should have been?

As you can tell from the length of deliberations, someone besides the state prosecutor thinks there is something to all this. Someone in that jury room -- one of them, or up to 11 of them -- sees what the state prosecutor saw. Otherwise, we'd have had a verdict of acquittal by now.

We might still, of course, but apparently not without vigorous deliberations.

In 32 years in Baltimore, with a lot of time logged in state and federal courts, I've never seen a more attentive, note-taking jury. These 12 men and women apparently have embraced their duty fully.

At least some of them think it's important to know whether the mayor of Baltimore is a greedy thief or an easily confused and ethically challenged shopaholic. They know they've been asked to answer that question for all their fellow Baltimoreans.

In a city where too many citizens are too apathetic to vote and where whole neighborhoods sometimes seem dysfunctional, it's good to see this. By Monday afternoon, the Dixon jurors were still asking the judge questions about evidence, which I took as further indication of diligence.

I assume all these jurors know about the subprime mess and the recession. They know about homelessness and youth violence and mental illness. They might have walked past examples of each of those on the way to the courthouse during the last two-plus weeks. Some of them might know those problems intimately and consider them to be of great public importance.

And yet, presented with Sheila Dixon and gift cards – a matter that a lot of people have ridiculed as frivolous – these jurors obviously have taken their duties seriously. They all probably have more important things to do, but not at the moment.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Thursdays and Sundays in print and online, and Tuesdays online-only. He is host of the Midday talk show on WYPR-FM.

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