Closings Set Today In Dixon Case

Mayor Will Not Testify On Charges That She Stole Gift Cards Intended For The Needy

The Mayor On Trial

November 19, 2009|By Annie Linskey and Julie Bykowicz | Annie Linskey and Julie Bykowicz, and

Jurors are set to hear closing arguments today in the criminal theft trial of Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon - without ever having heard from Dixon herself.

The panel of nine women and three men will then begin deliberating the case against the mayor, who is accused of spending gift cards intended for needy families on herself and her aides.

Dixon seemed confident when she spoke briefly with reporters after court Wednesday, though she replied, "No comment," to most questions. Usually outspoken, the mayor seemed to be restraining herself.

"It is hard to say, 'No comment,' " she said, smiling. In answer to a question, she said she will speak publicly about the trial after it ends.

Dixon said it was hard to sit in court silently, as she has for six days, and joked that she wished her lawyers would allow her to stand up and object to some of the testimony given.

The mayor's defense team sought and the judge granted a jury instruction that Dixon's decision not to testify cannot be held against her.

Saying that Dixon had waived her right to speak on her own behalf, defense attorney Dale P. Kelberman told Circuit Judge Dennis M. Sweeney that her lawyers "have had numerous discussions with Ms. Dixon, on many occasions, and discussed the pros and cons" of her taking the stand. "On our advice and with our concurrence, she elected not to testify. We have discussed the consequences of not testifying."

Former Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said Dixon will one day need to address "the court of public opinion."

"If this works out in her favor, my strong feeling is that she needs to talk to the community and try to explain what was going on in her life and what might have led her to do some of the things she did, and then put it behind her," Schmoke said. An explanation will be especially necessary if the mayor wants taxpayer reimbursement for some or all of her legal fees, he said.

Still, he said he understood why she did not testify.

"There is a big difference between having questions thrown at you by a reporter and being cross-examined by a state prosecutor," said Schmoke, a one-time prosecutor and now dean of Howard University's law school. "Even the best of communicators can find it difficult getting their point across when they are getting cross-examined."

Dixon is charged with five theft-related counts, including one felony. But when jurors retire to consider their verdict, they will have to follow a set of instructions that makes it impossible for them to convict her on more than three counts - fewer than half the number she faced when the trial began last week.

She 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'd given Dixon gift cards for charity.

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

State Prosecutor Robert A. Rohrbaugh has said that his investigation of City Hall, which began in March 2006 when Dixon was City Council president, reveals "cozy relations" between Baltimore's elected leaders and developers. But the jury will determine only whether the mayor is guilty of taking or misusing about $630 worth of gift cards from Target, Best Buy and Toys "R" Us.

Her defense, outlined in opening statements last week, is that she believed some of the gift cards she used were intended as personal gifts. Other cards, which were left over from a charity event and found in Dixon's home when it was raided in June 2008, were ones she had forgotten to return, her lawyers argued.

Dixon faces a separate trial, scheduled for March, on perjury charges related to her failure to disclose on city ethics forms designer clothing and other lavish gifts from Lipscomb, whom she formerly dated.

On Wednesday, Dixon arrived at the downtown courthouse wrapped in a shawl, toting her usual cup of tea from Starbucks. Courtroom observers included East Baltimore City Councilman Bernard "Jack" Young, who sat with the mayor's sister, Janice Dixon, and chatted with the mayor afterward.

Testimony lasted less than an hour. Michael Koletar, owner of The Flower Cart on Harford Road, said he processed a $285 order for a "big, beautiful bouquet" that Lipscomb sent to Dixon. The card was to say: "To Sheila. Anonymous."

The testimony was intended to bolster a defense claim that Dixon frequently received anonymous gifts from Lipscomb while the two were dating and therefore mistakenly believed that a blank envelope filled with gift cards delivered in December 2005 was a token of affection meant for her personal use.

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