Veteran political and investigative journalist Doug Donovan is in Courthouse East, covering the trial of Mayor Sheila Dixon for Baltimore magazine. Here is his first post, from day one of jury selection.
With cameras and recording devices barred from Mayor Sheila Dixon’s criminal trial, Baltimore sketch artist Betsy Stone Kirk provided the only image from inside Courthouse East yesterday. In the picture, a stone-faced Dixon sits with a notepad and pen in her hands and faces an empty jury box.
By the end of today the jury box is expected to be full as Dixon’s legal team and prosecutors try to finish the two-day task of picking the 12 city residents who will decide if the mayor is guilty of a reverse Robin Hood: stealing gift cards donated to poor families and using them for herself.
After a nearly four year investigation by the Maryland State Prosecutor’s office, the most scintillating scandal in Maryland politics got off to an excruciatingly dull start yesterday and today as Judge Dennis M. Sweeney presided over the methodical task of pruning a jury pool of hundreds down to 12 people.
I know this is very boring,” Sweeney told jurors on the first day of trial yesterday. The same scene is expected to play out today before a Veterans Day break tomorrow.
For 12, the boredom will not last. Their work is expected to start when the trial gets going on Thursday or Friday.
Jurors will do more than just determine the guilt or innocence of a divorced mother of two children who has spent more than two decades in elected office. They could end her career with a guilty verdict, effectively removing Baltimore’s first female mayor from office. Dixon would be the highest ranking political resignation in Maryland since Gov. Marvin Mandel stepped down due to his conviction in 1977.
Before the nearly 200 potential jurors filed into the courtroom, Dixon’s attorney, Arnold M. Weiner (who also represented Mandel back in the day) declared that the mayor was pleading not guilty to “each and every count” brought by Prosecutor Robert A. Rohrbaugh.
Only a pool of eight reporters—including TV luminaries Jayne Miller, David Collins, Joy Lepola, and Mary Bubala and Sun scribes Annie Linskey and Julie Bykowicz—were allowed into the courtroom during Sweeney’s questioning of potential jurors. The mayor stood up and faced the potential jurors as they filed in. The judge then asked a series of questions to begin filtering out people. “21 people indicated that they had already formed opinions of Dixon's guilt or innocence that could not be swayed by evidence presented at trial,” according to The Sun. “Six reported harboring biases either for or against elected officials.”
Remaining jurors were then called individually to the bench.
With courtroom speakers buzzing with static throughout the day, observers and potential jurors could hear none of the haggling taking place among lawyers huddled in front of Sweeney’s bench.
The trial, predicted by many to last at least two weeks, is poised to offer dramatic moments as Dixon’s former boyfriend—developer Ronald H. Lipscomb—is expected to testify for the prosecution. Dixon’s indictment on theft and misconduct in office charges alleges that Lipscomb and another developer, Patrick Turner, gave gifts cards for a City Hall needy families campaign only to have their gifts used by the mayor.
Wearing eyeglasses and a sharp dark suit Dixon fully participated in the jury selection, standing at the judge’s bench all day with her lawyers. She looked more than just mayoral. She looked lawyerly.
Rohrbaugh, meanwhile, appeared light hearted, with his glasses often perched on his forehead and a smile on his face.
I suppose it’s no surprise that Dixon wants to appear more like a mayor than a criminal defendant, and that her Republican prosecutor wants to look nothing like the political witch-hunter she accuses him of being.