The criminal trial of Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon opened in city court here today, with lawyers beginning a grueling
jury selection process in a case that has captivated city residents for nearly four years.
Mayor Dixon, who took the city’s top office in January 2007, is facing seven charges of theft, misappropriation of fiduciary duty, and misconduct in office. Prosecutors say she stole more than $1,000 worth of gift cards donated by developers for the city’s needy residents, using them to buy herself items at Target, Toys “R” Us, Old Navy, and Best Buy – including, according to court documents, a PlayStation 2, a digital camcorder, DVDs, and CDs.
“The citizens of Baltimore have every right to expect their public officials will be open and honest and will not use the office for personal motives, gain or greed,” state prosecutor Robert Rohrbaugh said while announcing the indictments early this year.
Dixon has repeatedly denied the charges. Her attorney told circuit judge Dennis Sweeney – a retired judge from another county specifically appointed for the city hall cases – that she was pleading not guilty to “each and every one” of the counts against her. The attorney, Arnold Weiner, has also publicly described the indictment against Dixon as “ludicrous.”
According to courthouse reports, Dixon worked with her attorneys, pen in hand, on scouring a pile of hundreds of jury questionnaires.
Legal experts say the racial and gender makeup of the jury will be key. Baltimore city juries are notoriously sympathetic to minority defendants, says University of Baltimore School of Law professor Byron Warnken. The Democratic Dixon, the first female mayor of Baltimore, is black; Mr. Rohrbaugh, a Republican, is white.
“We cannot underestimate the fact that the state prosecutors office is all white guys who don’t practice in the city,” Professor Warnken says. “Race is germane in the United States of America, and it is really germane in the criminal justice system.”
The theft charges against Dixon are just the beginning of the mayor’s legal trouble. She is also facing an indictment on perjury counts related to her alleged failure to report a number of lavish gifts from prominent Baltimore developer Ronald Lipscomb, with whom she has admitted to having a “personal relationship.”
At the time, Dixon was City Council President, and was supporting tax breaks for Mr. Lipscomb’s development projects.
Those charges will be the focus of another trial next year. But this summer Lipscomb agreed to a plea deal in which he promised prosecutors that in return for dropping bribery charges against him, he would to testify against Dixon in the trial that starts today.
The theft trial is expected to last at least two weeks – Dixon’s office has said that she will still be able to manage the city while on trial.
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