JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Two motions filed this week by federal prosecutors in the corruption case against outgoing Congresswoman Corrine Brown offer a hint at the government's trial strategy.
Brown, D-Florida, and her chief of staff, Ronnie Simmons, are accused of using an unregistered charity to raise $800,000 that prosecutors said they used as a personal "slush fund." Among the 22 federal charges against Brown are counts of conspiracy, mail and wire fraud and violation of tax laws.
Both Brown and Simmons, who could face sentences of more than 300 years in prison each if convicted on all charges, pleaded not guilty.
The federal corruption trial won't begin until April 2017 with jury selection slated for April 24.
Brown's attorney, James Smith, has said that he will ask the court to admit character evidence on Brown’s behalf, meaning he will want witnesses to testify to Brown’s character, and not directly to the case.
The prosecution filed a motion Monday to exclude “inadmissable character evidence” by both defendants.
"The United States anticipates that Brown and Simmons will seek to introduce evidence addressing their character and purported good works, including while Brown was a member of the United States House of Representatives and Simmons was Brown’s chief of staff," the filing said. Brown, in particular, has stated publicly and through her counsel in Court that she intends to present all of the 'good' she has done over the years as a member of Congress. Such evidence is not permissible, and is, in fact, irrelevant to the jury’s determination of guilt on the charged offenses in the indictment."
Prosecutors said they’ll go after Brown's and Simmons' characters, pointing out lies the government believes they’ve told.
"As of now, there hasn't been any order there that precludes her from saying anything on the outside, and she is going to continue to feel the way that she feels and say what she wants to say and what she believes she needs to say," said attorney Gene Nichols, who is not connected with the case. "But that being said, this is the government’s way of saying it is not coming into the court room, as soon as those doors closed and the jury locks in the room."
Prosecutors also want to block the defense teams for Brown and Simmons from “offering argument or evidence designed to elicit jury nullification,” which would encourage the jury members to return a not guilty verdict even if they believe the defendants are guilty of violating the law. In such cases, the jury essentially nullifies a law that it believes is immoral or has been wrongly applied to the defendants.
"The whole point is to have the motion heard and the judge have a ruling that should say, 'You cannot find these two not guilty because of some sort of government going after them or because of race or something along those lines. Find them not guilty based upon the evidence. Find them guilty based on the evidence.' It does not have anything to do with the outside," Nichols said.
In the motion, the government said it anticipates “the defendants may seek to nullify the jury’s verdict by challenging the government’s motivation” for filing charges in the case, “by alleging that the defendants were somehow selectively prosecuted or by claiming outrageous government conduct.”
The motion points out that “Brown has already telegraphed this line of defense in numerous press appearances and statements, during which she has repeatedly claimed that this prosecution is the result of political targeting and racial animosity on the part of the United States.”
The government says “to the extent Brown and Simmons pursue claims of outrageous government conduct, the law is clear: any attempt to distract the jury’s attention from the defendants’ conduct through claims of improper government action is irrelevant and has no place at trial.”
Prosecutors have said that the government expects to call 40 to 50 witnesses, and that Carla Wiley, the director of the questionable charity One Door for Education, could be on the stand for days.
Both sides estimated the trial will last three to four weeks and seemed hopeful that they could find an impartial jury in Jacksonville.
"In the federal court, it will be the judge’s responsibility to make sure that those individuals who sit on the jury can be fair and impartial," Nichols said.