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Political Animal

Trial by Twitter

By Brian Morton | Posted 12/16/2009

Who would have thought that such a simple and historic process such as jury deliberations could be affected by the modern wave of social media?

Currently, Sheila Dixon is mayor-for-now, but "now" may last a good long while, since her attorneys have a veritable candy store of arguments from which to choose in order to keep Dixon in her job. The most recent of these is the argument that the jury could have been "tainted" by the previous contact between Juror Number Three, Shawana Tyler, and former Dixon staffer and prosecution witness Mary Pat Fannon during a holiday sweepstakes three years ago. Along with that, there is the extrajudicial contact jurors had with each other via the social media web sites Facebook and Twitter. And those are just the beginning.

Now, your Political Animal is no stranger to courthouses, juries, or even social media, and the whole of these arguments strikes me as like trying to nullify the result of the Ravens-Patriots game back in October because of some of the lousy officiating. Aside from the mayor, there's hardly anyone in City Hall with visibility high enough to be remembered three years later. Hell, after Dixon's conviction, three people in a row asked me the name of the person who succeeds her as mayor if she steps aside (for the record, that would be City Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake). For all you know, you could have stood next to Fannon three years ago in a supermarket line. To say that this could be enough to sway someone's opinion three years later after winning a cart full of groceries is a little weak.

Now, the question of jury taint (suddenly this is starting to sound like a Mr. Wrong column) due to social media is another thing entirely.

Jurors are a room full of people with few things in common up to that point other than they live in Baltimore and all got snagged for a trial and randomly flung together for days, sometimes weeks. No matter if they are instructed not to, jurors will talk to each other.

Back in the early 1990s, this writer ended up on a jury for quite possibly the stupidest drug dealer alive. His best friend--nicknamed "Wrong Way"--turned state's evidence on him, his girlfriend turned out to be an undercover FBI agent, and he applied too late to get the services of a public defender and so was forced to defend himself. This man was the walking, talking embodiment of the aphorism about having a fool for a client.

Said idiot drug dealer kept trying to introduce an entrapment defense, only to constantly be told by the judge that the legal circumstances didn't allow for him to do so. And every time the judge had to stop him and explain why, we, the jury, had to be sent back to the jury chamber with instructions not to talk about the case.

After about the sixth instance of this, one of the more gregarious jurors in the room, who held the door as we filed back into the jury room once more, closed the door behind us, and turned to address us all.

"I don't know if this guy is guilty or not," he said dramatically. "But if being stupid is a crime, we're gonna have to send this guy up."

That broke the dam. After all the laughter died down, the entire jury took part in a comic reconstruction of all the proceedings up to that part, some of us almost falling out of our chairs amid the merriment.

For the record, the jury convicted the guy in all of about 20 minutes of deliberation, but that's hardly the point now. If we bonded so quickly over the spectacle of some loser attempting to cross-examine himself in the witness box like he had split personalities, then it's not hard to imagine jurors connecting over a holiday weekend via Facebook and Twitter during a serious, stressful trial.

On top of that, there is a gamut of legal questions that need to be sorted out. For example, can Dixon be removed as mayor over an offense that occurred while she was City Council president? And the language of the state constitution is muddled over the meaning of the term "conviction," which is why we're having to wait until Dixon's sentencing in January to even get an idea of where to start.

What we do know is that for every day Dixon draws a salary from the public till, there will be growing pressure for her to step aside and not fight until the bitter end with every legal argument possible. Even if she managed to delay a suspension from office, her pending trial on perjury charges in March still hangs over her head, reminding the citizens that her problems have only begun.

Even if Sheila Dixon somehow can still call herself mayor in the month of February, the shortest month of the year may be the longest of her political career. The question for her will be: What good is it to fight, and to win, if in the end, she has no political currency left?

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