Dixon may count on sympathetic jurors

If Mayor Sheila Dixon goes to trial before a Baltimore jury, it might include some of the best friends she could hope to find.

The city's jurors -- often poor, uneducated and distrustful of police and prosecutors -- have historically been sympathetic to defendants, most of whom are black.

"Jurors in Baltimore City, typical jurors, they render verdicts from the gut," said Warren A. Brown, a city defense attorney for more than 20 years. "To hell with the law, to hell with the facts, they will render a verdict that they think is fair, is right."

And while Dixon isn't your typical defendant -- among other things, the city's first black female mayor is accused of stealing gift cards meant for needy families and treating herself to fur coats and pricey hotel stays on her developer-boyfriend's tab -- her attorneys are already playing to potential jurors by portraying the case as a witch hunt by the state prosecutor.

Her attorney, Arnold M. Weiner, ridiculed State Prosecutor Robert A. Rohrbaugh, a gubernatorial appointee who investigates public corruption, for his relentless pursuit of Dixon and his failure to indict her on a more serious charge, such as bribery.

"The state prosecutor went on a journey that was nothing but a big circle," Weiner said.

A study released in fall 2008 by the Abell Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank that examines poverty in Baltimore, found juries in the city less likely to convict defendants than those in the surrounding suburban counties. The study cited both socio-economic factors -- the Baltimore jury pool is poorer and less educated than in the suburbs -- and race -- the city is two-thirds black and 92 percent of defendants were nonwhite.

The phenomenon isn't limited to Baltimore. Arthur Patterson, a senior vice president at DecisionQuest, a national jury consulting firm, said jurors also tend to be more sympathetic to defendants in other cities with large minority populations, including Los Angeles and Chicago.

"Minority individuals bring to the jury room a sensitivity to defendants' lives that non-minority jurors don't have," Patterson said. "Minority defendants get a fair shake. I'm not saying more than a fair shake, but they get a fair shake."

Baltimore prosecutors have long known it can be difficult to win convictions from a population that feels it is poorly served by police officers and prosecutors.

Defense attorney Margaret Mead, who has practiced in Baltimore for nearly 20 years, said juries don't ignore hard evidence, but are often familiar with the criminal justice system and more apt to see through the agendas of police officers and witnesses.

"You have a jury pool that is skeptical and cautious about what people say on either side," Mead said. "This is a population of people with such significant life experience that they are cautious about what anybody says on that witness stand."

When the study was released, State's Attorney Patricia Jessamy described its findings as common knowledge in a letter to The Baltimore Sun and blamed, in part, an ingrained mistrust of police.

"Past policies of 'zero tolerance' have contributed to this," Jessamy wrote, referring to a now-abandoned policing strategy under which officers made mass arrests for minor offenses.

Defense attorneys feed off that mistrust, sometimes winning acquittals that seem at odds with undisputed facts. The phenomenon is known as jury nullification, when jurors acknowledge the evidence against a defendant but decide against conviction.

Brown proved the power of jury nullification by securing one of the most dramatic verdicts in recent city history. Dontee Stokes, who admitted shooting a priest accused of abusing him as a child, was acquitted in 2002 of attempted murder and assault charges.

Brown argued Stokes had an out-of-body experience and was overwhelmed by memories of the abuse. A forensic psychiatrist testified Stokes suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and was not able to "form intent" when he shot the priest. Jurors later said they accepted that explanation and believed Stokes had suffered enough. He was convicted of three handgun charges and received no jail time.

Brown said the out-of-body defense gave an already sympathetic jury an excuse to acquit Stokes.

In more mundane cases, Page Croyder, a city prosecutor for 21 years, said jurors can be reluctant to send someone to jail for what they perceive as a minor offense.

She remembers losing a stolen bicycle case and having a juror tell her afterward the defendant could have gone to jail for five years, though that was unlikely. She said the outcome could be similar if jurors worry what might happen to Dixon.

"Even if they believe that she may have committed an offense," Croyder said, "if the defense attorney successfully minimizes it, they may do one of those jury nullifications simply because the defense attorney has said, 'This is minor. This is peanuts.'"

Dixon is popular among residents who overwhelmingly elected her to her own four-year term after she succeeded Martin O'Malley in January 2007. She denies wrongdoing and says she has been unfairly accused. A trial has not been scheduled.

While her race and the tendencies of Baltimore juries might work in Dixon's favor, the details of the indictment handed up last week may work against her. The indictment claims she solicited donations of gift cards for needy families and used them for personal Christmas shopping. She's also accused of lying about gifts from her former boyfriend, a millionaire developer, who allegedly financed a $9,500 spree at upscale Chicago stores including Coach and St. John's Boutique.

"When you're spending all that money at Saks Fifth Avenue and the Ritz-Carlton, some people are a long way removed from that," said University of Dayton law professor Thaddeus Hoffmeister. "She's not the average person. She's part of the power structure."

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