JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Forty of the 65 potential jurors in the federal trial of former U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown said they had heard about the charges against the former congresswoman. Not all of those were excused, but on the first day of jury selection, 21 possible jurors were struck from consideration for various reasons.
Some were released due to defense challenges over to their opinions of Brown or knowledge of the case. One was dismissed by prosecutors after she said Brown would not be on trial if she were a Republican. An attorney was stricken because he knows several people involved in the case, including trial Judge Timothy Corrigan. Others were dismissed due to hardship or health challenges.
The jury will not be sequestered during the trial, but they must not see any coverage of the trial until after a verdict is reached.
By Wednesday morning, a jury of 12 men and women is expected to begin hearing evidence on the 22 charges of conspiracy, fraud and tax evasion facing Brown, who served northeast and central Florida on Capitol Hill for over two decades.
If found guilty on all of the charges against her, Brown could face 350 years in prison.
Brown has continued to insist that she is innocent, even calling the prosecution a "witch hunt." The I-TEAM learned Monday that she had sold a Fernandina Beach home she co-owned with her brother for $275,000 to help pay for her defense.
A lawyer who was a federal prosecutor for 17 years said one of Brown's challenges will be the makeup of the jury pool.
"(The) Federal District spans half a dozen different counties, including Baker County, Sumter County," Curtis Fallgatter said. "(You) can get an awfully rural type of mix on the jury. Tends to be a lot of government retirees, because you've got the military installations here. Not too many minorities on that panel because of the broad scope of selection in rural counties."
It appeared the jury pool began with 51 whites and 14 blacks. Almost all of those dismissed Monday were white.
"Every attorney will tell you racial makeup matters because there are different perceptions in life," Fallgatter said. "All due respect to white folks, you know, (but) some white folks think black folks should be held to a higher or different standard, and may not have that compassion and understanding. Minorities may see it a little different way."
While Brown may not consider an all-white panel to be a jury of her peers, Fallgatter said that's a distinct possibility.
"I think it's a negative for her to not have minorities that may be a little more understanding as to what she does for her job and the trust she had in others to help her get that job done and be a little oblivious to misconduct others may be conducting or be involved in," Fallgatter said.
Fallgatter said that based on his experience, he believes that if Brown is convicted, she'll likely be sentenced to five or six years in prison, and would likely only serve 85 percent of that time.
Different from state court, questioning of prospective jurors is done by the judge, who began by reminding those being considered that Brown is presumed innocent and the government must prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that she committed any crime.
Both sides submitted questions for the judge to ask. Among the questions prosecutors have already submitted:
- Do you personally know Corrine Brown?
- Do you have any strong feelings about her one way or the other?
- Do you have any political views that would affect your ability to consider the evidence presented at trial?
Attorney Gene Nichols, who is not associated with the case, said the government's attorneys will be looking for a specific type of juror.
“Prosecutors want to make sure jurors are not going to come in and give Congresswoman Brown a 'not guilty' just because she's Congresswoman Brown,” Nichols said.
He said prosecutors will want to be sure jurors have not been affected by Brown one way or the other.
But the defense will be hoping for something different, Nichols said.
“The defense would love to find jurors who are going to be sympathetic to her cause,” Nichols said. “Not only what she's done in her career, but potentially individuals who would be thinking the government is persecuting her, which is what we've been hearing from her in the last year.”
Another underlying factor in the case will be the race and gender of each jury member.
“We should never be presuming that a certain individual of a certain race will side one way or the other in this trial or any trial,” Nichols said. “Is it an underlying issue that everybody is going to be talking about? Of course it is.”
Brown is so confident that "the facts will set her free" that she said she has not emotionally prepared herself for prison.
"If someone killed an entire community, they wouldn't get 350 years," Brown said. "I know if my attorney was here, he would not want me to talk about it. The point I just want to make is this is a part of the criminal justice system, and so many people come up to me and say, 'They going to give you 30 years versus 300 years if you don't plead out.' There is something wrong with that system."
The former congresswoman did not want to talk strategy when she spoke to News4Jax investigator Lynnsey Gardner on Friday, but did say she is happy with the list of people who will testify in court on her behalf.
Prosecutors laid out their list of exhibits that they say will show Brown's guilt. This includes deposits into her account totaling $70,000. Brown said she doesn't know where prosecutors got those numbers.
Prosecutors are also trying to call Brown's daughter, Shantrel Brown, to the stand, alleging she also received money from a questionable charity. Shantrel Brown has notified the court that she plans to cite her Fifth Amendment right not to testify.
"My attorney says that will not happen, so we'll just see," Brown said.
Brown also says she will testify in court, saying "no one can tell my story like I can."