JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A federal appeals court appeared divided Tuesday as it heard arguments about whether to overturn the 2017 conviction of former Florida Congresswoman Corrine Brown, who contends that a juror was improperly removed from her 2017 trial because he said the “Holy Spirit” told him Brown was not guilty of fraud and tax charges.
Brown was convicted on multiple tax and fraud charges and sentenced to five years in federal prison. She was let out last year due to COVID-19 concerns in the federal prison where she as serving her time. She is currently in home confinement.
The trial judge dismissed Juror 13 citing that the juror disregarded the court’s instruction that he makes a guilty or not-guilty decision based on evidence.
Juror 13 had made several religious comments about the trial, including that the Holy Spirit told the juror Brown was not guilty.
A three-judge panel that heard Brown’s initial appeal affirmed the trial court’s ruling, but Tuesday, the full panel of judges agreed to hear the case Tuesday.
Paul Clement, a former U.S. solicitor general representing Brown, argued that Corrigan made a “clear legal error” by replacing the juror because of the statement about the Holy Spirit. He pointed to people commonly praying for divine guidance.
“People pray in different ways,” Clement said. “People understand they receive answers to their prayers in different ways.”
But Assistant U.S. Attorney David Rhodes urged the Atlanta-based appeals court to uphold the conviction and said Corrigan carried out his “fact-finding role” about whether Juror 13 would properly consider the evidence in the case. He said Corrigan considered the Holy Spirit comment in a broader context of the juror’s actions.
Juror 13 was disqualified after another juror alerted Corrigan to the Holy Spirit comment. In a brief filed in December, prosecutors said the man made the Holy Spirit comment at the beginning of jury deliberations.
“I don’t think it (the Holy Spirit) comment is, in and of itself, disqualifying,” Rhodes said. “The district court was looking at everything.”
In a 68-page brief filed last year, Brown’s attorneys argue the court showed religious discrimination and say the dismissal of the juror deprived Brown of her constitutional rights, writing in part, “Juror 13 repeatedly assured the court that his religious beliefs were not interfering with his ability to follow the law and the evidence.”
In questioning the attorneys, the appeals-court judges appeared divided. Judge Beverly Martin, for example, questioned Clement about whether he would take the same position if a juror said the Holy Spirit told him that Brown should be convicted.
“We have to make one rule for both cases,” Martin said. “What would that rule be?”
Judge Adalberto Jordan followed by taking Martin’s question a step further.
“In your view, would the result be the same if Juror 13 said Satan told him Corrine Brown was guilty on all charges?” Jordan asked Clement.
But other judges appeared skeptical of Rhodes’ position.
Judge Barbara Lagoa, a former Florida Supreme Court justice, said members of many religious denominations believe in praying to the Holy Spirit for help in making decisions. She suggested that Corrigan was making a “per se rule” that jurors can pray but that if they receive a response, it is considered an “external influence” on their decision-making.
Judge Kevin Newsom dubbed the juror’s Holy Spirit comment the “radioactive statement” in the case. But he asked Rhodes about whether there is “no surviving it” if a juror makes such a statement.
“There’s no taking it back? It’s over?” Newsom asked.
Brown, now 74, was a member of the U.S. House from 1993 to 2017, after serving in the state Legislature. The Jacksonville Democrat 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.
Prosecutors wrote in a brief at the appeals court that Brown and her former 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.”
Local attorney Randy Reep, who is not affiliated with the case, talked about the approach Brown’s attorneys are taking.
“It is the one argument they have that is of interest,” Reep said. “It could have been an error on the part of the judge, therefore they’ve got to throw that at the wall and see if it sticks.”
Reep said there are weaknesses in the argument Brown’s team is making.
“By saying that they weren’t applying the facts that they saw in the trial to the law Judge Corrigan gave them -- and that is how you’re supposed to render a verdict -- they reached over into a container to bring information that didn’t apply to the trial,” Reep said.
There’s no word on when the appeals court would issue a ruling, but it could take months. If the majority of judges side with Brown’s attorneys, her conviction would be set aside and she would get a new trial.
News Service of Florida contributed to this report.