Sheila Dixon trial: the tricky business of prosecuting a mayor

The trial of Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon, who is alleged to have stolen $1,500 in gift cards, began Thursday. Both prosecutors and defense attorneys have to bring their 'A-games' to trials of public officials.

Dana Verkouteren/AP
This courtroom sketch shows Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon, left, listening to state prosecutor Robert Rohrbaugh show members of the jury receipts for gift cards during opening statements in her trial, Thursday, in Baltimore.

In one version she is a thief; a public official who committed what state prosecutor Robert Rohrbaugh called the “unspeakable” act of stealing gift cards intended to make a better Christmas for Baltimore’s needy families.

In the other she is the proud, honest, and beleaguered mayor; the target of an overzealous prosecutor and a deceitful former boyfriend who is using her to escape punishment for his own dishonest business practices.

A Baltimore jury got a glimpse of both of these portraits of Mayor Sheila Dixon Thursday, as lawyers gave opening arguments crafted not only prove their side of a case that has captivated this city for nearly four years, but to navigate the tricky territory of prosecuting a high-ranking public official.

“There is a heightened scrutiny for everyone involved in the process when you’re prosecuting a public official,” says Steven Levin, a Baltimore defense attorney and former federal prosecutor who handled public corruption cases. “The spotlight is not just on the public official – it’s going to be on the prosecutors, the defense attorneys, the judge, the family in the audience. Everybody has to bring their A-game to the courtroom.”

Defense attorneys must not simply prove their client’s innocence, but must save – or, ideally, improve – their reputation, Mr. Levin says.

On the other hand, prosecutors must prove to the jury that the charges are worth the expense and potential tumult to the city. This could be an issue in Dixon’s case, since the charges against her allege that she stole only about $1,500 worth of gift cards.

“This is not Buddy Cianci,” Levin said, referring to the former Providence mayor imprisoned for high stakes, widespread corruption.

Both sides of the case seemed to have these goals in mind during opening arguments Thursday.

Mr. Rohrbaugh repeated a dozen times or more that the gift cards in question were intended for needy families – making the case something about more than the theft of a relatively small sum of money.

“When you steal you’ve committed a theft,” Rohrbaugh said. “When you steal, and you’re a public servant and you steal from the needy, it’s unspeakable.”

Conversely, defense attorney Arnold Weiner began his opening statement with praise of the mayor.

“Let me first say, we’re proud to represent Sheila Dixon in this case,” he said. “The 48th mayor of Baltimore, the first woman mayor, not to mention the first African-American woman.”

And earlier in the day, the two sides had argued over whether testimony about Dixon’s performance as mayor – and the plans she has for the city in 2010 – could be admissible as evidence.

Dixon is charged with three counts of theft, three counts of fraudulent misappropriation by a fiduciary, and one count of
misconduct in office. All of the charges revolve around Dixon’s use of gift cards, most of which both sides agree were donated by two of the city’s most prominent developers – Patrick Turner and Ronald Lipscomb.

The defense says that the gift cards were, in fact, gifts to Dixon from Lipscomb, who was her boyfriend at the time.

The case has roiled the political and business community here; the trial’s witness list, also released today, reads like a Who’s Who of Baltimore – business magnate and developer John Paterakis, Rev. Frank Reid of Baltimore’s most prominent African-American church, and Rep. Elijah Cummings, among others.

"There will be pressure on both sides," says Byron Warnken, a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law. "There might be the notion that, well, prosecutor, you've spent four years doing this stuff. She’s either really bad, or you’re really out to get her."

The case is expected to continue for weeks.

See also:

Jury selection key in trial of Baltimore mayor Sheila Dixon


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