JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – After a federal appeals court ordered a new trial on Thursday for former U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said Friday that it’s reviewing the decision and declined to comment on whether prosecutors will pursue a retrial of the once-powerful Florida Democrat.
Brown had served just over two years of a five-year sentence for fraud and other crimes related to a purported charity for poor students that prosecutors said she had used as a personal slush fund.
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the judge in Brown’s case violated her Sixth Amendment right to a unanimous jury verdict. The panel voted 7-4 to vacate Brown’s 2017 convictions and sentence.
Her indictment has not been overturned so the Department of Justice could prosecute her again. James Smith, Brown’s former attorney who represented her during the trial, said it’s unlikely they will opt for a retrial
“I don’t think they’re going to for a few reasons. First, it’s incredibly time-consuming and expensive. I think the equities tilt in favor of not prosecuting. Now DOJ is under new leadership, take in her age, good things, and that she’s already served her time -- interest is to let this go and allow her to return to the community and continue to do good things,” Smith said.
Another question is whether Brown’s Congressional pension, which she lost after her conviction, might be reinstated now that the conviction has been vacated.
‘Joyful and visionary’
Brown has not responded publically to the ruling. A sign in front of her Jacksonville home tells media and visitors to stay away.
Brown’s close friend, John Crossman, who visited her while she served time in prison and counseled her on her work with other inmates, said he spoke with her after the ruling was announced.
“She was joyful and visionary and stating that she feels like what she went through had a purpose and she’s going to be used to help weigh in on some of these important topics,” Crossman said.
Brown’s current attorney, William Kent, said they were happy with the outcome of the appeal but declined to comment further.
Brown’s original attorney, James Smith, who handled her case when she was convicted, said the removal of a juror over comments about the Holy Spirit clearly invalidated the results of the trial.
“I think the judge made a bad decision because it violated congresswoman Brown’s right to a fair trial. I can distinctly remember that evening when I received the email from the judge’s clerk telling us that something was going on with one of the jurors and that we needed to report the next day,” Smith recalled.
News4Jax contacted that juror who was dismissed from the trial. He answered the phone but declined to comment on the appeals court ruling that his dismissal by the judge was improper.
The appeals court decided that the judge in Brown’s case abused his discretion by removing the juror who expressed, after deliberations had begun, that the Holy Spirit told him that Brown was not guilty on all charges. The juror repeatedly assured the judge that he was following the jury instructions and basing his decision on the evidence, but the judge concluded that the juror’s statements about receiving divine guidance were categorically disqualifying, court records said.
Attorney Lea Patterson and the Texas-based First Liberty Institute, a nonprofit law firm that steps in on religious liberty cases, helped Brown’s attorneys pro bono after they objected to Judge Timothy Corrigan throwing out the juror during the trial.
“It was definitely a surprise and a very pleasant one at that,” Patterson said of the appeals court ruling. “As long as there is evidence that this juror is deliberating appropriately, considering the evidence in the law, his religious expressions are no less valid than anyone else’s more secular expressions in the deliberation process.”
Brown, who in 1992 became one of the first three African Americans elected to Congress from Florida since Reconstruction, was convicted by a federal jury in May 2017 on 18 of the 22 charges against her. The charges included fraud and lying on her tax returns and congressional financial disclosures.
Brown reported to prison in January 2018 and was released in April 2020 after serving just two years of the five-year sentence. Her attorney had argued that she needed to be released to protect her from the coronavirus pandemic then spreading through the prison system.
Brown represented a Florida district that included Jacksonville during her nearly 25-year career.
Corrine Brown headshot, as US Representative of Florida
Prosecutors said she siphoned money from the One Door for Education Foundation for personal use. They said the pattern of fraud by Brown and her top aide included using hundreds of thousands of dollars from the foundation for lavish parties, trips and shopping excursions.
Federal prosecutors said Brown, her chief of staff and One Door’s executive director used the charity to bring in more than $800,000 between 2012 and 2016, through donations and events including a high-profile golf tournament at TPC Sawgrass. The Virginia-based One Door gave out only one scholarship, for $1,200, to an unidentified person in Florida, according to court documents.