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What is justice for Mayor Dixon?

A great clamor calls in some quarters for Mayor Sheila Dixon to be treated before the law as any of us would be. That is, without regard to her title.

Actually, it may be precisely that — her position of trust — that determines her fate.

She must pay for her transgressions. She stands convicted of stealing from the poor — of pilfering gift cards entrusted to her to buy Christmas gifts for the needy.

We cannot know how widespread is the cry for blood in this case. There is no poll, no throng of citizens sitting in the coliseum. If one were to go by talk radio, most thumbs are down. She gets little public sympathy save for the church ladies who came to cheer her.

But are we such an unforgiving people? Are we so aggrieved that nothing sways the scale of justice in the direction of an accused?

A series of missteps

We can say this much: Whatever the verdict in the court of public opinion — even the harshest verdict — our mayor has helped to create that tempered mercy and forbearance.

Over a long career in public office, she has earned her critics.

She insisted on holding two government jobs at the same time. She seemed to steer city business to a campaign aide. She insisted for a time on keeping a pay raise even as her colleagues were turning theirs back.

And then there was the trial and the now infamous gift cards. She called a developer to ask for them, prosecutors say, and then used them for herself as if they were part of her compensation. In this and other aspects of her public life, she exhibited a sense of entitlement.

Worse, almost, her behavior suggested that others in government have always done the same. She reinforced the untrue but toxic view that government is run by petty thieves determined to grab theirs.

Ms. Dixon said, through her lawyers, that she mistook an unmarked envelope full of the cards for a gift from a developer-boyfriend. The jury didn’t buy it. Her lawyer had tried to slip reasonable doubt into the scenario presented by the prosecutor. Some unmeasurable portion of the public has sided with the jury.

Held to a higher standard?

Esteemed city leaders have suggested that she throw herself on the mercy of the court, writ large. In this scenario, she would say she won’t appeal. She would acknowledge wrongdoing. She would be contrite — the opposite of entitled. Perhaps she would be sentenced to probation before judgment. She might then continue in office.

Why would a judge go along with such an arrangement? He would have to overlook a dodgy past, to be sure.

But if we insist on justice for all equally, there’s another consideration: the rest of the defendant’s life. Much of it has been exemplary. Should that history be weighed in the balance — as if would be for any defendant? For all of our sakes it must be. Since the days when she took over as mayor, Ms. Dixon has impressed city leaders — official and unofficial, past and present — with her determination to govern well. None of the charges against her grew from actions taken as mayor. A criminal investigation can influence behavior, to be sure, but we must all believe in the possibility of change.

It may be assumed the prosecutor was interested in more than misuse of gift cards. Big money was at stake in city development projects. He may have expected to find cash in bank accounts which seemed out of line with her public service income. Apparently he did not.

The demand for equal justice must apply in the case of Mayor Dixon, but it may not save her job. Public officials, particularly mayors — because they are so close to the people — should be held to a higher standard.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. His e-mail address is fsmith@wypr.org.