Voters have given Dixon a pass - will jurors follow suit?

January 18, 2009|By Dan Rodricks

Jurors in Baltimore city, typical jurors, they render verdicts from the gut," Warren A. Brown, the oft-quoted, camera-loving criminal defense attorney told a reporter last week. "To hell with the law, to hell with the facts; they will render a verdict that they think is fair, is right." And so jury nullification - men and women voting for acquittal while acknowledging that the evidence against a defendant is strong, even conclusive - is a phenomenon in Baltimore and something that looms in the matter of the criminal case against the city's first female mayor.

"If Mayor Sheila Dixon goes to trial before a Baltimore jury, it might include some of the best friends she could hope to find," began an Associated Press story. "The city's jurors - often poor, uneducated and distrustful of police and prosecutors - have historically been sympathetic to defendants, most of whom are black."

I have heard others with long experience in the courts predict Ms. Dixon's acquittal, martyrdom and mayor-for-life status.

This subject requires a leap into speculation, but it's clear that, should the case get to trial in the city, the prosecution will face a jury pool that already, in a sense, has nullified accusations against Sheila Dixon.

In voting her in as City Council president twice and mayor once, thousands of voters either looked past questions about Ms. Dixon's ethical standards or didn't think they mattered.

Go back to 1999 and the time of Martin O'Malley's election as mayor and hers to the council presidency, and you find Ms. Dixon ignoring an ethics opinion that she cease double-dipping from two government jobs.

At the time, Ms. Dixon was paid $80,000 as the full-time council president and $56,000 a year as a trade representative with the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development. To her credit, she cut her state work and pay in half and asked the State Ethics Commission if her duties for Maryland conflicted with her being Baltimore's second-most-powerful elected official.

The commission found that about 20 percent of the companies Ms. Dixon worked with in her state job were from Baltimore. The city and the state had too many economic connections, and Ms. Dixon "would have a role in a variety of fiscal and spending matters in which the city would be collaborating with the state." The commission concluded that Ms. Dixon's "dual employment would be inconsistent with prohibitions [in] the public ethics law."

What did she do? She ignored the commission's advice and kept the second job for another 2 1/2 years. "I think [the commission] really couldn't understand or couldn't believe the fact that I've been able to keep my two lives separate, based on what I do in the international arena," she said. "Their ruling is based on perception, nothing factual."

Perception, appearances, how things might look to the public - Sheila Dixon seems to have had trouble with all that, and for a while now.

She hired her sister to work in the City Council president's office, a violation of the ethics code. She conducted a hearing to explore why a company that employed her sister hadn't been getting more work through the city; she never disclosed the family connection and seemed annoyed that The Baltimore Sun found out about it.

Between 2001 and 2006, Ms. Dixon steered no-bid government work worth at least $600,000 to the man who had served as her campaign chairman, and in payments under $5,000 each, thereby avoiding the need for Board of Estimates approval. That arrangement, revealed by The Sun, gave off a bad aroma, but thousands of Baltimoreans either weren't bothered by the smell or held their noses and voted for Ms. Dixon anyway.

So, yes, the prosecution faces a challenge in getting convictions by a Baltimore jury composed of Baltimore voters.

But the ethical lapses and poor judgments described in this space, nuanced and not rising to the criminal, aren't even mentioned in Ms. Dixon's indictment. What's mentioned are allegations voters of Baltimore did not hear about before the mayoral election of 2007: failing to report luxurious gifts from a developer seeking big tax breaks from the city and stealing gift cards intended for the needy. Even a Baltimore jury might not nullify that.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Sundays on this page and Tuesdays in the news pages. He is host of the midday talk show on WYPR-FM. His e-mail is dan.rodricks@baltsun.com.

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