JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Attorneys for former congresswoman Corrine Brown have filed an appeal of her conviction on 18 federal counts of fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy.
The appeal was filed with the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday, meeting the deadline extension granted to Brown's lawyers. Legal experts tell News4Jax that Brown's appeal is a long shot.
Brown, 71, began her five-year sentence Jan. 29 at a minimum-security prison camp that is part of the Coleman Federal Correctional Complex in Central Florida.
Brown's appeal is based entirely on the dismissal of a juror during the guilt phase of her federal trial. That juror had told others on the panel that he had prayed and believed the Holy Spirit had told him Brown was not guilty.
In the 62-page filing, Brown's attorneys reference at least 11 Bible passages as they argue that the appeals court should throw out the judgment against Brown because her rights and those of the juror were violated when the juror was dismissed.
The controversy that prompted the juror's dismissal began when juror No. 8 contacted the court during deliberations, saying that she was concerned because juror No. 13 was talking about "higher beings."
According to an unsealed transcript from the closed hearing that Judge Timothy Corrigan called to address the issue, Corrigan asked juror No. 13, a Middleburg Navy veteran, if he said a “higher being” had told him Brown was not guilty on all the charges. The juror responded, “No, I said the Holy Spirit told me that.”
The juror told Corrigan he believed he could follow the court's instructions in coming to a fair judgment, but after interviewing both jurors, Corrigan decided juror No. 13 needed to be dismissed and an alternate was seated, despite objections from Brown's then-attorney, James Smith.
Brown's current attorney, William Mallory Kent, argues in his appeal of the conviction that the court might have been wrong to even question juror No. 13 at all based on the limited information provided, arguing that it was "improper and impermissible" to inquire about the juror's mental process in deliberations.
Kent argues that the juror was never told that seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit was a violation of court instructions and that a juror can only be dismissed for willful misconduct, which he says was not established in this case.
He said the court even admitted the juror “likely believed that he was trying to follow the court’s instructions,” which invalidates the court’s decision to remove the juror, Kent argues.
Kent argued it's possible dismissing the juror violated his First Amendment right to freedom of religion, along with the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993.
The appeal also argues Brown's Sixth Amendment right to a unanimous verdict was also violated when the juror was dismissed.
According to Kent, the courts have established that jurors are allowed to pray for guidance during deliberations, but it's less clear if they are allowed to consider the guidance they believe they have received from those prayers when they decide guilt or innocence.
Kent cited what he called the only reported decision related to his appeal, which came out of the Utah Supreme Court. He said that court found it was wrong to "upset a verdict" on the basis of a juror having prayed for guidance and then acted on the guidance they believed they received.
The Utah Supreme Court found the juror’s prayers -- and answers -- were NOT outside influences.
“No case in the history of American jurisprudence has ever held that a juror’s personal prayer life before or during deliberations could be the basis of a finding of good cause to dismiss a juror," Kent argues.
A panel of three appeals court judges will make a ruling on the appeal, but that might not happen for several months.
Kent's office said he would not be commenting on the appeal filing.
In addition to her five-year sentence, Brown, a Florida Democrat who was elected to Congress 12 times, will also serve three years of supervised release and must pay $250 a month in restitution once she's released from prison.
Brown was at the center of a scheme, described as "shameless" by Corrigan, that collected hundreds of thousands of dollars for One Door for Education, an unregistered charity billed as an organization for disadvantaged children that raised more than $800,000 over a four-year stretch.
Of the $833,000 raised, only $1,200 went toward scholarships. The rest, including as much as $300,000, paid for things such as events and travel for Brown and those in her orbit, as well as dozens of cash deposits to her personal bank account and a range of frivolous expenses, like nearly $14,000 for Beyonce tickets and $15,000 for a suite at a Jaguars-Redskins game.
A jury found Brown guilty on May 11 of 18 counts of federal mail, wire and tax fraud for soliciting donations for the fake charity, using that charity as a “slush fund” for herself and her associates, and lying on her taxes and congressional disclosure forms.