Juror Contact In '06 With Dixon, Witness Could Cause Mistrial

Sun Exclusive

December 05, 2009|By Robert Little | Robert Little , robert.little@baltsun.com

A juror who helped to convict Mayor Sheila Dixon of embezzlement participated in a public event with Dixon and a key prosecution witness three years ago, receiving a $324 prize in a sweepstakes sponsored by a city agency. The prior contact, which was not disclosed before the trial, could give the mayor's lawyers grounds to pursue a mistrial, legal experts say.

The juror, 23-year-old Highlandtown resident Shawana Tyler, said she didn't disclose the information during the jury selection process because she did not recall Dixon having attended the event and did not realize that the sweepstakes was sponsored by a branch of city government. Tyler also said she did not recall the central role that former Dixon staffer Mary Pat Fannon played in the event three years ago, nor did she recognize Fannon during her testimony at the trial.

"I don't remember either of them being there, and no one ever asked me about it," said Tyler, who was Juror No. 3 in the trial that found Dixon guilty of misappropriating gift cards intended for charity.

Still, experts in jury dynamics said the undisclosed history is enough for the mayor's defense attorneys to ask that the jury's verdict be thrown out.

"That's bias, certainly enough for the defense to argue that it's bias," said University of Dayton law professor Thaddeus Hoffmeister, a jury specialist and Morgan State University graduate who has followed the Dixon trial.

The past contact with Fannon - a key prosecution witness who testified that Dixon gave her a $15 Toys 'R' Us gift card intended for needy children - is the most troubling, Hoffmeister said.

In 2006, Fannon was director of the Baltimore Development Corp.'s Main Streets program, which sponsored the sweepstakes that Tyler won. Fannon and Tyler appeared side by side when the award was presented. If defense attorneys had known about that, they might have speculated that Tyler could be predisposed to favor Fannon and give greater weight to her testimony, Hoffmeister said.

"Not only is that a personal relationship, the juror gained something from it," Hoffmeister said. "If it wasn't disclosed, it will raise all kinds of red flags with the defense. They can say, 'Had I known about this, she would have been the first person I struck from the jury.' "

Tyler, one of the more outspoken jurors since the trial ended, has talked extensively about the panel's deliberations, never suggesting that Fannon's testimony was important. Fannon declined to comment, and several calls to the Main Streets program were not returned.

Dixon's lead attorney, Arnold M. Weiner, said he intends to research the 2006 event, which was mentioned in a brief article, along with a picture of Tyler, in the Nov. 30, 2006, edition of The Baltimore Sun. Weiner declined to discuss the matter further but said: "We'll be reviewing it along with all the other things we'll be reviewing related to the trial."

Dixon's defense lawyers asked the court Friday for more time to craft a motion seeking a new trial, saying they need to "obtain certain transcripts of testimony and other evidence." The motion was denied, reaffirming a deadline of Dec. 11. The mayor's attorneys said they also are exploring questions about whether the jurors participated in prohibited communications with outsiders or with each other as the trial progressed.

Soon after the panel of nine women and three men began deliberating Nov. 19, half of them also began "friending" each other on Facebook. Juror No. 6, Shiron Davis, confirmed that the jurors had chatted on the social networking site.

During the four-day break in deliberations for Thanksgiving, Davis invited Juror No. 12, James Chaney, to her Edmondson Village apartment for Thanksgiving dinner. The Sunday before deliberations resumed, Juror No. 11, Elaine Pollack, wrote to Chaney, "Hi James! Ready for round........oh I lost count! See you tomorrow!"

He replied: "Yeah its probably round 12 or 13 but im ready i guess. Hopefully it will be the last round."

"Al," a person not on the jury, added a comment to that online conversation that read: "Not guilty ..." After the verdict, Davis wrote: "NO AL, GUILTY AS HELL...SORRY."

Though presiding Judge Dennis M. Sweeney advised jurors to keep a low profile and not communicate with one another outside the jury room, it is unclear whether the Facebook communications amount to enough to overturn the guilty verdict. State prosecutors and defense attorneys learned of the online contact on Wednesday, when reporters asked questions after the judge released the list of juror names. Prosecutors said they view the communications as harmless, while Weiner said he is reviewing the content as a possible issue in appeals.

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