JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – After an alternate was seated Wednesday in the Corrine Brown federal corruption trial following concerns raised by one juror about another, the reconfigured jury was instructed to begin its deliberations from scratch.
Those deliberations, which included two questions that were sent to Judge Timothy Corrigan, began just after 10:30 a.m. and ended just before 5 p.m. with no indications that the jurors have reached verdicts on any of the 22 charges against Brown.
Within half an hour of beginning discussions with the alternate juror, the jury sent a question to Corrigan about whether Brown is responsible for everything on her taxes if she did not provide all the information or if she did not sign the tax forms. The judge referred the jurors to their instructions on how to view the tax counts.
During the trial, Brown's chief of staff, Ronnie Simmons, who she blames for stealing money from an unregistered Virginia charity and putting it in her personal accounts without her knowledge, testified that he signed at least one of Brown's tax forms.
And in closing arguments, Brown's attorney hammered home a point about an email between Simmons and Brown's certified public accountant that indicated the two of them were working out Brown's charitable contributions list for her taxes without Brown's input, which the jury could interpret as her not being directly involved in the tax fraud, as the government alleged she was.
Taxes make up four federal charges against Brown -- three for filing false returns and one charge of a corrupt endeavor for misleading the IRS. If she were to be found guilty of those alone, she could face anywhere from 21 months in prison to home detention, according to a former prosecutor. The sentence would be at the judge's discretion.
The jury asked a second question about 2:30 p.m. on whether the government has to prove all of the elements of the mail fraud counts beyond a reasonable doubt, and the judge said yes.
“I’ll make the crack that it is probably the most awesome question asked by the jury. So if you make a cake, you need the eggs, sugar, flour and milk, and if you don’t have all of them, you don’t have a cake,” said attorney Randy Reep, who has been serving as a legal expert for News4Jax. “If you don’t have all of them, you don’t make a conviction.”
Judge seats alternate
The controversy that prompted the seating of an alternate juror began when juror No. 8 contacted the court Tuesday night, saying that she was concerned because there was another juror talking about "higher beings." Corrigan, who interpreted the comment to mean "higher power," spoke to attorneys from both sides about the issue and decided to seal the courtroom Wednesday morning to interview both jurors to see if any actions needed to be taken.
After that interview, the judge dismissed juror No. 13, who was the source of No. 8's complaint, without explaining the reason except to say it was a "legal" one. He then seated the first alternate over the objections of Brown's defense attorney, James Smith.
"I have found good cause to dismiss one juror and seat an alternate," Corrigan said.
Reep said it was highly unusual for a juror to call the court after hours.
“I am surprised that juror wasn’t also removed,” Reep said. “There is a jury foreman and a process in place if you want to talk to the judge, and we sort of expect that to go through that process. But here we made that call on our own, and certainly Judge Corrigan agreed with her once he was able to look at everything.”
Local attorney Gene Nichols, another News4Jax legal expert, said that the seating of an alternate juror is likely "not good news for Corrine Brown."
“Obviously something was said that told Judge Corrigan that this juror could no longer sit on this jury, be fair and impartial or follow the law,” Nichols said. “For those reasons, the judge had to dismiss that juror. But we will never find out why, unless the trial is over with or the juror decides to speak.”
The change shifts the racial makeup of the jury, but the gender breakdown remains the same with seven men and five women. There are now seven white jurors, three black jurors and two Hispanic jurors.
The juror who was dismissed was an unemployed white male from Middleburg who served in the Navy. The judge spoke to him before he left court, encouraging him not to speak about the case but saying that it would be his choice if he did or not.
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The alternate juror who was seated is a Hispanic male who was a former student government officer at the University of North Florida and worked with UNF President John Delaney, who was one of just four witnesses to testify in Brown's defense.
The alternates were at the court during deliberations but were watching movies, Corrigan said.
Because the alternate juror was not sitting in on the previous 12 hours of deliberations, the jurors were instructed to set aside the previous discussion and begin the process again. When Corrigan asked the jurors if they could do that, they nodded agreement.
The alternates were sitting in on all of the court proceedings over the last two weeks as prosecutors tried to convince the jury that Brown, a Democrat who represented the Florida district that included Jacksonville from 1993 to 2016, funneled money from the charity, One Door for Education, into her personal accounts.
She has pleaded not guilty.
The jury could find Brown guilty on any or all of the charges, but each verdict must be unanimous or a mistrial will be declared on that charge, which could lead to a retrial.
Brown remains 'prayerful'
After the hectic morning in court, Brown had lunch Wednesday at nearby Sweet Pete's as she awaited any more news from the new jury.
While awaiting a verdict at the Jacksonville Landing on Tuesday, Brown told News4Jax that she remained “prayerful.”
“I love the Landing. It's such a beautiful place,” she said. "The water is so peaceful."
The last 12 days have been anything but peaceful for the 70-year-old former representative, who has been on trial facing 22 federal charges, including participating in a conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, mail and wire fraud, concealing material facts, obstruction of IRS laws and filing false tax returns.
“It's been a tough 15 months, and I'm glad that it's coming to an end," Brown said. “It's just been a very difficult time. … The community has been wonderful; the people are praying. We're going through it together.”
Prosecutors wrapped up their closing arguments Monday in the fraud and tax evasion trial, calling on jurors to use their "common sense" as they deliberate her fate.
Prosecutor Eric Olshan spent more than an hour reviewing the highlights of the government's fraud and tax charges against Brown, saying that she stole from One Door and lied about her income and contributions on her taxes.
Olshan said Brown, who was indicted last July, claimed on her taxes to have given four times more to charity ($28,000 a year) than she actually gave ($6,600 a year).
Federal prosecutors said One Door raised $833,000 but gave only $1,200 in scholarships. Olshan told jurors that the real victims are the worthy students who could have gotten scholarships.
In his closing argument, James Smith continued to insist that Brown trusted and was deceived by her former chief of staff, Ronnie Simmons, and his onetime girlfriend, Carla Wiley, who founded and ran One Door.
Brown lost re-election after she was indicted last summer. On the stand, she said that she didn't know about the scheme until after the indictment was filed, and that her only mistake was being too trusting of Simmons, and perhaps too laissez-faire about her personal finances.
Over several days of testimony, prosecutors documented that at least $300,000 of One Door's funds paid for receptions, luxury boxes at sporting events and concerts, and trips and expenses for Brown and her associates.
Simmons, who has pleaded guilty to two related charges, testified that Brown ordered him to take money from One Door's accounts and deposit it into her personal bank account. He said he also forged checks from the charity but left the amount blank and gave the checks to Brown in her office, also on her orders.
Simmons said Brown ordered how all of the One Door money was spent and no one in her office ever dared to tell her "no."
Under cross-examination, Simmons admitted that he lied for years about One Door, that he lied to the FBI when investigators came to question him about it and that he lied to Brown's defense attorney when the attorney, at one point, was going to represent him along with Brown.
Simmons said he had to be overly cooperative with the government to get a reduced sentence for his own crimes.
Smith focused his closing argument on whether a "self-admitted liar and thief with a criminal conviction" for assault against his girlfriend and "a vested interest in what happens" in Brown's trial is someone the jury should trust.
"His handwriting is literally all over this case," Smith said. “He fooled One Door for Education, he fooled Carla Wiley, and he certainly fooled the investigators. I’m confident he’s not going to fool you.”
Smith told the jury that Simmons repeatedly used women for his benefit: getting his sister on Brown's payroll so he could steal her paycheck, using his girlfriend's charity to enrich himself and using Brown for money and power.
Brown's testimony Friday was briefly halted after she broke down under cross-examination and shouted, "They're trying to destroy my life," as jurors filed out of the courtroom for a break.
Prosecutors hope jurors won't be distracted by Brown's emotional outburst Friday and will focus on the facts the government has presented.
"She exercised total control. No one told her no, but that didn't stop her, ladies and gentlemen, from using the power of her office to benefit herself,” Olshan told the jury Monday. “But you can say, 'No, enough,' because the defendant is guilty of each and every count in the indictment.”