Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon will be sentenced Jan. 21, a date that could become her last day in office if her bid for a mistrial is unsuccessful and other legal maneuvers fail.
The mayor has not said whether she plans to relinquish power and has refused to answer questions about her conviction, citing post-trial motions that her lawyers are drafting. Last week, a jury found Dixon guilty on one misdemeanor charge that she embezzled retail gift cards intended for needy families.
The state's constitution requires elected leaders to step aside if they are convicted of misdemeanors related to their official duties. That provision is triggered once a judge enters a sentence, according to an opinion by the Maryland attorney general. Also at stake is Dixon's city pension, which is at least $83,000 a year.
Baltimore City Solicitor George Nilson said the sentencing date provides a deadline by which the mayor's "status" must be "resolved in some way that is definitive."
"Frankly, I can't tell you what that status will be and how we get from here to there," Nilson said. "We have about 40 days to get that sorted out."
Nilson said having the date settled could also help set a framework for a transition of power should Dixon decide to step down. If Dixon leaves office, City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake would become mayor.
Rawlings-Blake repeatedly has said she is focused on her current position. But Nilson said that with Dixon's sentencing date set, it is likely that the City Council president and her staff will at least have time to begin "contemplating" plans for a new administration as the date grows closer.
He also said that there are steps that "all of us in city government can do to address" a transition in power, should one occur. "All of us in our own separate ways - or all of us together - will take those steps."
A number of legal questions continue to cloud the mayor's future. Dixon's attorneys have said they will file a motion for a mistrial today, and their arguments could be bolstered by recent disclosures that jurors communicated via Facebook and one failed to reveal a cash award she received from the city at an event attended by Dixon and a key witness in the case. A hearing on that motion will be held Jan. 6.
It is possible that Dixon could ask for probation before judgment, a legal move that would allow her to avoid a formal conviction and hold on to her office, her pension or both.
Should those two options fail, Dixon's lawyers could argue that the constitutional provision requiring removal from office should not apply because the crime for which she was convicted occurred when she held a previous position, City Council president.
If prosecutors and Dixon's attorneys cannot reach a deal on sentencing, it is possible that the hearing could be contentious, with both sides entering evidence that was barred from the trial.
Earlier in the day, former Washington Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr. took to the Baltimore airwaves to offer support for the embattled mayor, saying on WOLB radio that there is a national "pattern" of prosecutors targeting African-American politicians and finding "a little bit of smoke but no fire."
Most of this city's most prominent elected officials have said little about Dixon - and her future - since her conviction.
Barry, who has endured his own series of legal problems, including a 1990 conviction for cocaine possession while he was mayor and an arrest this year on a stalking charge, made his comments during a 15-minute interview on WOLB's "Larry Young Show."
It was unclear if the appearance was part of a coordinated public relations strategy to build support for the mayor. On air, Barry, now a D.C. city councilman, said that he spoke with both Dixon and her chief of staff, Demaune Millard, before making the appearance.
Scott Peterson, Dixon's spokesman, refused to say whether City Hall staff members facilitated the interview.
Barry stressed that Dixon was found guilty on only one of three possible charges. "There is some question about whether or not it did happen," he said. "The jury acquitted her on a number of activities, and only one was convicted, and that is questionable."
Dixon was charged with seven offenses, although two were dropped during the trial and she could have been found guilty of three of the remaining five at most. Jurors acquitted her of three charges, including felony theft. They failed to reach a verdict on a charge that she misused about $120 worth of Toys "R" Us gift cards from a city-funded charity program.
Barry repeatedly invoked race during the interview. "Black elected officials are accused and disproportionally targeted for prosecution and persecution," Barry said. "I could name you black official after official that has been targeted. And then we find after it is all said and done there is nothing there except a little bit of smoke but no fire."
Some prominent city leaders, including former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, have said that Dixon should apologize. But Barry disagreed.
"If you believe in your heart that you have not done anything wrong," he said, "then why should you show remorse?"