JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The 12 jurors and four alternates who will hear the case against two former Jacksonville City Council members were finalized late Thursday -- one day ahead of schedule.
Katrina Brown and Reggie Brown, who are not related, face dozens of counts stemming from loans taken out by Katrina Brown’s family barbecue sauce business. Prosecutors claim the two diverted some of nearly $3 million in government money for their personal use.
The court began screening a pool of 65 potential jurors Wednesday, and just after 6 p.m. Thursday, it finalized the panel of six men and six women who will hear the case. The alternate jurors are three women and one man. The court had expected the process to take three days.
Reggie Brown said he was excited to get on with the process.
"You've got to trust the judicial system and pray that it works. That's all we can do as Americans," he said.
Katrina Brown, who is representing herself at trial, said she would have liked to have had more time to prepare for the trial.
"I just put my faith in God," she said.
About a third of people in the jury pool indicated they had heard some reports about the case. By the end of the first day of questioning, 15 jurors were stricken or dismissed -- some for cause and some due to hardship.
Katrina Brown arrived about 45 minutes late to court Wednesday, saying she had an emergency.
Also Wednesday, Reggie Brown's defense attorney, Thomas Bell, objected to the fact that an FBI special agent who will also be a government witness in the case was seated at the table with the prosecutors. The agent is allowed to be in the courtroom because of a “case agent” exception granted by Judge Marcia Morales Howard. Bell was concerned that having an FBI agent who will testify at the trial present during jury selection would give an impression of importance to the case.
Howard sustained the objection and ruled that the agent could remain in the courtroom, but not sit at the table with the government lawyers.
Much of Thursday was spent questioning potential jurors about their beliefs and about interactions with police and court officials before the two sides picked the jury.
Opening statements are expected to begin Monday and the trial is expected to take two weeks.
Background on 38 charges against the Browns
In December 2016, the FBI and the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office raided the Jerome Brown Barbecue Sauce plant on Commonwealth Avenue. Detectives left with boxes of evidence.
Since then, both Katrina Brown and Reggie Brown were indicted by a federal grand jury on charges including conspiracy and fraud. The indictment alleges the two were involved in the fraudulent handling of nearly $3 million in federal and city loans and grants. The feds say the money did not go where it was intended.
Katrina Brown was not on the City Council when the business received the city loan and grant. Reggie Brown was on the City Council and voted to approve it in 2011.
According to the indictment, Reggie Brown later had two companies that claimed to be doing work for the barbecue business, but federal investigators said the companies did no work. The indictments said it was a way to funnel loan money back to the business. Reggie Brown vehemently denies that.
Since the indictment, there have been numerous legal twists and turns. Katrina and Reggie Brown wanted separate trials. That did not happen.
Katrina Brown’s first court-appointed attorney withdrew from the case. She was given two new attorneys. Six weeks ago, Brown declared she wanted to represent herself in court.
Attorney Rhonda Peoples-Waters, who is not associated with the case, says that could be problematic.
“Even though you may know your case very well, and there’s no doubt she knows her case better than anyone, the question is, does she know how to present the case in the legal manner you learned from legal training?” Peoples-Waters said.
As for the case itself, it’s expected much of the testimony will be from bankers and financial experts laying out how the money was spent and the alleged involvement of the two former council members.