TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Saying judges should use “utmost caution” when disqualifying jurors based on religious beliefs, attorneys for former Florida Congresswoman Corrine Brown urged a federal appeals court Monday to order a new trial in her challenge to a conviction on fraud and tax charges.
Brown’s attorneys filed a 68-page brief at the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, after the full Atlanta-based appeals court agreed in September to hear the case. Oral arguments are expected during the week of Feb. 22.
The appeal focuses on a decision by U.S. District Judge Timothy Corrigan to replace a juror during Brown’s 2017 trial on charges related to a charity scam. 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.
But in the brief filed Monday, Brown’s attorneys argued that Corrigan’s decision to disqualify the juror “discriminates on the basis of religion” and deprived Brown of her constitutional rights.
“Indeed, 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 brief said. “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. That is not a line that civil courts have any basis (or competence) to enforce.”
Brown’s conviction was upheld in January by a three-judge panel of the appeals court, but that ruling was vacated in September as the full court decided to hear the case.
The religious issues in the challenge have drawn attention and support for the former 12-term Democratic congresswoman from Jacksonville. Along with her Jacksonville attorney, William Mallory Kent, Brown is represented in the appeal by former U.S. Solicitor General Paul Clement and by attorneys from the Texas-based group First Liberty Institute.
Also, attorneys general from Nebraska, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Dakota and Texas filed a friend-of-the-court brief Monday supporting Brown in the appeal.
“If affirmed on appeal, the district court’s holding poses significant concerns for religious people who believe that God communicates with them,” said the brief, led by the Nebraska attorney general’s office. “It exposes them to adverse treatment during jury service and deliberations. Secular jurors may announce that their ‘gut’ tells them the defendant is telling the truth and is not guilty. But religious jurors may not say that they believe the inner voice they attribute to the divine told them the same thing. The district court’s decision is thus founded on an inherent mistrust of, and suspicion toward, people of faith.”
Brown, now 74, 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 Brown, her longtime chief of staff, Ronnie Simmons, and the charity’s founder, Carla Wiley.
Corrigan disqualified the disputed juror -- identified in court documents only as Juror 13 -- after another juror alerted him to the comments about the Holy Spirit.
In 2017, the News4Jax I-TEAM interviewed a separate juror who said the dismissal of Juror 13 affected the case.
“He said, ‘The reason I voted not guilty is because, before I came here, the Holy Spirit told me she was not guilty, and I still don’t think she’s guilty,’” said Juror 3. “Everybody started getting mad and saying, ‘You have to base it off the evidence, and what’s in front of you,’ and he said, ‘I did.’”
In a 2018 document filed at the appeals court, federal prosecutors argued that Corrigan acted properly in disqualifying the Juror 13.
“The decision to remove a sitting juror is a significant one that justifiably warrants careful, albeit deferential, review by this (appeals) court,” the federal prosecutors wrote. “The district court’s decision here handily withstands that review. The court took this issue very seriously and removed the juror only after having carefully considered whether that juror would be able to follow the court’s instructions and decide the case based on the evidence. And the court did so only after having concluded that the juror’s decision -- that he had been told by the Holy Spirit, before deliberations had even begun, that Brown was not guilty of all 24 charged crimes -- was not based on the juror’s evaluation of the sufficiency of the evidence.”
But in the brief filed Monday, Brown’s attorneys wrote that constitutional principles “compel courts to proceed with the utmost caution when the government asks them to disqualify a deliberating juror on the basis of his religious beliefs.”
“Here, the district court failed to abide by that command. In doing so, the court crossed two constitutional lines, discriminating against a juror on the basis of his faith, in ultimate service of depriving the defendant of her right to a unanimous and uncoerced jury of her peers,” Brown’s attorneys wrote. “Under a correct application of the demanding beyond-a-reasonable-doubt standard, the conviction plainly cannot stand.”
When News4Jax contacted Juror 13 on Tuesday evening, he declined to comment on the latest development.
On Tuesday, News4Jax also stopped by Brown’s home, where there was a sign saying that media cannot approach her property due to COVID-19 concerns.
Gene Nichols, an attorney not affiliated with the case, said this will be a tough decision for the 11th Circuit. He told News4Jax the decision will really be about semantics -- the court will have to determine whether the juror had a pre-made decision based on what he believes the Holy Spirit said before the trial or whether he simply prayed on the evidence presented and then made his decision.
“What the argument is that Corrine Brown was discriminated against in that she had a juror removed from her panel for religious reasons, and you can’t remove a juror for religious reasons,” Nichols said Tuesday. “So the argument is that she did not get a fair trial because that juror should not have been removed.”
Nichols said that if the 11th Circuit sides with Brown, it will be sent back to the court in Jacksonville and she could get a new trial. If she’s unsuccessful, she will continue serving her term, which, right now, is home confinement due to COVID-19 concerns in the prison where she was housed.