TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Federal prosecutors have asked an appeals court to uphold the conviction of former Congresswoman Corrine Brown on fraud and tax charges, pushing back against arguments that a juror was improperly replaced after he said the “Holy Spirit” told him Brown was not guilty.
Prosecutors last week filed a 69-page brief, as the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals prepares to hear arguments Feb. 22 about whether it should order a new trial.
Brown’s attorneys contend that U.S. District Judge Timothy Corrigan’s decision to replace the juror during the 2017 trial discriminated on the basis of religion and deprived the former Democratic congresswoman of her constitutional rights.
But in the brief last week, prosecutors wrote that the man -- identified in court documents only as Juror 13 -- said at the outset of jury deliberations that the Holy Spirit told him Brown was not guilty of all charges.
Prosecutors said Corrigan correctly found that Juror 13 “had decided the case based on something other than the evidence and the court’s instructions and that he had done so without participating in the crucible of deliberation with his fellow jurors.”
“So the issue is not whether jurors can seek or receive spiritual guidance -- of course they can. There’s nothing wrong with belief in answered prayers or in answered prayers themselves,” prosecutors wrote in the brief. “But something is wrong when, as the district court found, the answer comes in a form divorced from the evidence and interferes with the juror’s duty to deliberate and decide the defendant’s guilt or innocence based on the evidence.”
In a brief last month, however, Brown’s attorneys wrote that “it is hard to understand the district court’s decision as anything other than a holding that relatively abstract religious beliefs are permissible (even useful in ensuring that jurors follow their oaths) but more specific religious beliefs, including any notion that the divine could lead a juror to one view of the evidence, are verboten.”
“The district court recognized that it is entirely natural and unobjectionable for a juror to pray for divine assistance, but it seemed to draw the line at a juror who believed his prayers had been answered,” Brown’s attorneys wrote. “That is not a line that civil courts have any basis (or competence) to enforce.”
Brown was convicted on 18 felony counts and sentenced to prison after Corrigan decided to replace Juror 13 with an alternate. The conviction was upheld in January by a three-judge panel of the Atlanta-based appeals court, but that ruling was vacated in September as the full court decided to hear the case in what is known as an “en banc” hearing.
The religious issues in the challenge have drawn attention and support for the former 12-term Democratic congresswoman from Jacksonville. For example, attorneys general from Nebraska, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Dakota and Texas filed a friend-of-the-court brief in November supporting Brown in the appeal.
But prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Florida wrote in the brief last week that the key issue is whether jurors properly weigh evidence.
“A juror’s reliance on divine revelation cannot be insulated from inquiry because the court must be able to assess whether the juror is capable of rendering a decision based on the evidence,” the prosecutors wrote. “Given the variety of religious experiences and faith expression in this country, we can’t say whether supernatural or divine revelation always helps a juror’s evaluation of the evidence or always interferes with it. And the judge cannot decide whether the divine guidance/directive is true or false, from God or not, revelation or hallucination. Divine guidance need not be subtle; it may be profound and moving, and it may be described vividly. But when a juror relies on it to reach a verdict, it has to be grounded in the evidence and the law, and the presiding judge must be able to decide whether the divine guidance/directive prevented the juror from doing his job.”
Brown, now 74, was convicted on the charges related to her role in using contributions to the One Door for Education charity for personal expenses and events. Prosecutors wrote in the brief last week that Brown and her chief of staff, Ronnie Simmons, solicited and obtained more than $833,000 in donations for One Door for Education.
“They never intended for the bulk of the money raised to be used for charitable purposes,” the brief said. “Instead, they used the vast majority of the money on personal expenses and luxuries for themselves.”