Federal appeals court affirms Corrine Brown’s fraud conviction

Former congresswoman argued juror should not have been dismissed during deliberations

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – In a two-to-one decision, a three-judge panel from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit has affirmed the 2017 conviction of former congresswoman Corrine Brown on 18 counts of conspiracy, fraud, and tax charges.

Brown, who was accused of using the One Door for Education charity as a personal slush fund, was indicted in 2016 and convicted a year later. During deliberations, one member of the jury, Juror 8, told the court that another juror, Juror 13, had spoken of “Higher Beings” in connection with Brown’s name. The judge wound up questioning Juror 13 about the matter, and the juror said the Holy Spirit told him that Brown was not guilty on all charges. The judge dismissed Juror 13, ruling that he was not basing his verdict solely on the testimony and evidence presented in court – rather, he said he was receiving information from a higher authority. The deliberations then restarted with an alternate juror replacing Juror 13, and Brown was convicted.

Following her conviction, Brown and her appellate attorney, William Kent, appealed the conviction based on the dismissal of Juror 13. Among their arguments were that the court didn’t have enough of a basis to question Juror 13 in the first place, and that the dismissal violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, Brown’s First Amendment right to freedom of religion, and her Sixth Amendment right to a unanimous jury verdict. Brown’s initial appeal brief was filed in March 2018, followed by a number of supplemental court filings. Brown’s attorney, as well as prosecutors, argued the appeal in Atlanta in February.

DOCUMENTS: View a copy of the appeals court’s decision

In the opinion published Thursday, judges wrote that the district court did not dismiss Juror 13 due to religion, but rather that he was dismissed because the court found him “incapable of rendering a verdict rooted in the evidence.” The judges in the majority found that as long as the court’s ruling to dismiss the juror was not clearly erroneous, it made no difference why the juror was not able to reach a verdict solely on the evidence.

The appellate judge who dissented in the decision called attention to several aspects of the majority’s ruling. The judge wrote that the ruling by the other judges gave courts broad discretion to “dismiss any juror who confesses receiving guidance from God,” going against the “tough” standard of proof established by other cases.

The dissent also found that the district judge mixed up divine guidance – as the juror mentioned the Holy Spirit – with reliance on “an outside force.” Part of the dissent cited various religious texts and writings on religion, in exploring the notion of whether divine guidance is an internal or external force. Brown’s initial appeal had taken a similar approach, with her attorney citing numerous Bible verses.

Brown and her attorney had also appealed to the Atlanta-based court for a review of the judge’s forfeiture order, which held her responsible for more than $664,000. In their appeal, they cited a 2017 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, which dealt with how co-defendants could be held liable together, for money or property derived from a crime. The appeals court rejected her argument, saying the specific Supreme Court decision did not apply to her case.

Brown can now file a petition for a rehearing, or a rehearing before all of the judges of the 11th Circuit, known as an “en banc” hearing. Meanwhile, she continues to serve her five-year prison sentence, which began at the end of January 2018. She is currently housed at a minimum-security prison camp for women that is part of the Coleman Federal Correctional Complex in Central Florida.

Legal experts tell News4Jax that federal prisoners typically only serve 85% of their sentences if they show good behavior and serve the final months of their sentences in a halfway house or on home confinement. After Brown initially reported to prison, the Bureau of Prisons website showed her release date as June 6, 2022. The BOP site now shows her release date as May 2, 2022.

Brown’s former chief of staff during her time in the U.S. House, Elias “Ronnie” Simmons, is still serving his prison sentence in connection with the One Door scheme. Simmons, who was indicted along with Brown, pleaded guilty and received a four-year prison sentence. The Bureau of Prisons website previously showed Simmons was serving his sentence at FCI Cumberland in Maryland, with an estimated release date in July 2020. Now, the agency’s website shows a release date of June 4, and lists his location as the Baltimore RRM, or Residential Reentry Management field office, indicating he is now serving his sentence at a halfway house or on home confinement. In August, Simmons asked a federal judge to recommend to the Bureau of Prisons that he be allowed to spend the last 12 months of his sentence in a halfway house. Court records do not specify whether a judge took any action on the request.

The founder of One Door for Education, Carla Wiley, was also a co-conspirator in the case. Early in the case, Wiley, who was Simmons’ ex-girlfriend, reached a plea agreement with prosecutors, and received 21 months in prison, the shortest sentence in the case. After serving her sentence at a federal prison camp in West Virginia, she was released from federal custody last year.