In a partial victory for former U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, a full federal appeals court agreed Thursday to take up her challenge to a conviction on fraud and tax charges in a charity scam.
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals vacated a January decision by a three-judge panel that upheld the Jacksonville Democrat’s conviction and agreed to rehear the case as a full court, a move known as holding an “en banc” hearing.
The Atlanta-based appeals court did not explain its reasons Thursday, but the three-judge panel was divided in January on whether the conviction should be withheld. Chief Judge William Pryor wrote a scathing dissent to the 2-1 decision, and Brown’s attorneys subsequently asked the full court to take up the case.
Bill Kent, Brown’s attorney, told News4Jax they’re very excited about the rehearing and they’re looking forward to arguing their case before the full court.
The appeal centers on a decision by U.S. District Judge Timothy Corrigan to replace a juror during Brown’s 2017 trial. Corrigan’s decision came after the juror said the “Holy Spirit” told him Brown was not guilty. The juror was replaced by an alternate, and Brown was ultimately convicted on 18 felony counts and sentenced to prison.
In a 30-page brief filed after the three-judge appellate panel upheld the conviction Jan. 9, Brown’s attorneys pointed to a tough legal standard for dismissing jurors during trial deliberations. The brief said the three-judge panel “erred by employing an overly deferential standard of review that, as a result, effectively determines that groups believing in the Holy Spirit’s guidance, such as evangelical Christians, are incapable of serving on a jury.”
“Ultimately, both the district court (Corrigan) and the panel mischaracterize prayer as an external influence rather than an internal experience,” the brief said. “For a Christian, saying ‘I trust the Holy Spirit’ is roughly equivalent to saying ‘I trust my gut.’ Such a belief is consistent with evaluating the evidence — it is not inherently disqualifying. The record below provides ample evidence reasonably supporting the possibility that Juror 13 (the dismissed juror) referred to prayer in this way.”
Brown, now 73, was released from prison in April after serving nearly half of her five-year sentence because of coronavirus concerns. She was convicted on fraud and tax charges related to her role in using contributions to the One Door for Education charity for personal expenses and events. In a court document, Corrigan said the charity, which was originally established to help children, was “operated as a criminal enterprise” by the 12-term congresswoman, her longtime chief of staff, Ronnie Simmons, and the charity’s founder, Carla Wiley.
But in fighting the conviction, Brown’s attorneys have cited the dismissal of the juror and raised the prospect of religious discrimination.
In the January panel decision upholding the conviction, appellate Judge Robin Rosenbaum focused heavily on a question of whether the dismissed juror could have decided the case based on the evidence. He was dismissed during jury deliberations after another juror reported concerns to Corrigan about the man’s Holy Spirit comments.
“Here, the district court (Corrigan) dismissed Juror 13, plainly and simply, because on this particular record, it concluded as a matter of fact that Juror 13 was not capable of rendering a verdict based on the evidence,” Rosenbaum wrote in the majority opinion joined by Judge Anne Conway. “Our holding today is a very narrow one, based on the particular facts of this record. That record reflects that the district court was very careful to ensure it was not dismissing Juror 13 because of Juror 13′s faith or because Juror 13 had prayed for and thought he had received guidance in evaluating the evidence and in actually making a decision based on that evidence. The district court showed that it understood — and we take this opportunity to emphasize — these things are allowed under our system and continue to be permitted fully under our decision today, whether jurors believe they communicate with a higher being or not, as long as the juror is willing and able to root his verdict in the evidence.”
But in his dissent, Pryor said the dismissed juror had given assurances he would base his decision on the evidence. Pryor also said the majority opinion could be used by lawyers in the future to try to keep evangelical Christians and African-Americans off juries. He wrote that evangelical Christians and African-Americans “believe they communicate with God at disproportionately high rates.”
“For a juror to receive and rely on divine guidance is not misconduct,” Pryor wrote. “When a conscientious juror asks God in prayer to assist her and believes that she has received his assistance, she has not taken instructions from an outside source. She has not performed the supernatural equivalent of a Google search. She has not made the Omniscient her own private eye to dig up additional evidence for or against the defendant. All she has done is to seek clarity of mind, insight, and discernment from that interior place where her conscious mind makes contact with what she believes is the divine. As long as the object of her prayers is an honest attempt to discern the facts from the evidence and to apply the law to those facts, the prayerful meditations of such a juror are no less valid a form of deliberation than any other.”
Attorney Curtis Fallgatter, a former federal prosecutor who’s not involved in Brown’s case, said two things could happen when the full court hears Brown’s appeal.
“If it’s reversed, that means that she’ll be entitled to a new trial because that will mean that juror was improperly excused. Of course, that means she’s entitled to a new trial. It doesn’t mean the case will go away, but it means she’s entitled to a new trial,” Fallgatter said.
Or, he said, the conviction could stand as it is.
If Brown gets a new trial, it doesn’t mean that she could end up serving more time. It could just mean the court will uphold the previous conviction or clear her record of the federal crimes.
News4Jax reporter Jim Piggott contributed to this report.