JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A divided federal appeals court Thursday overturned the conviction of former U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown on fraud and tax charges, ruling that a juror was improperly removed from her trial because he said the “Holy Spirit” told him Brown was not guilty.
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in a 7-4 decision, ordered a new trial for Brown, who was convicted in 2017 on 18 felony counts related to an alleged charity scam.
Brown’s appeal focused on whether U.S. District Judge Timothy Corrigan was justified in replacing the juror -- known as Juror 13 -- with an alternate because of the statement about the Holy Spirit.
In Thursday’s majority opinion, appeals-court Chief Judge William Pryor wrote that the record of the case “establishes more than a substantial possibility that Juror No. 13 did not forsake his oath and instead was fulfilling his duty. Corrine Brown was entitled to the unanimous verdict of a jury of ordinary citizens. The removal of Juror No. 13 -- a juror who listened for God’s guidance as he sat in judgment of Brown and deliberated over the evidence against her -- deprived her of one.”
Pryor wrote that the juror repeatedly assured Corrigan that he was following jury instructions and basing his decision on evidence presented during the trial.
“Jurors may pray for and believe they have received divine guidance as they determine another person’s innocence or guilt, a profound civic duty but a daunting task to say the least,” Pryor wrote in a 48-page opinion joined by Judges Kevin Newsom, Elizabeth Branch, Britt Grant, Robert Luck, Barbara Lagoa and Andrew Brasher. “The district judge was wrong to conclude that Juror No. 13′s statements that he received guidance in response to prayers were categorically ‘a bridge too far.’”
But Judge Charles Wilson, in a dissenting opinion, wrote that district judges are “best positioned to assess a juror’s capability and willingness to properly deliberate.” Juror 13 was disqualified during deliberations after another juror alerted Corrigan to the Holy Spirit comment.
“The majority casts the district court’s decision as misconstruing religious expression while failing to safeguard the right to a unanimous jury verdict,” Wilson wrote in the dissent joined by Judges Beverly Martin, Adalberto Jordan and Robin Rosenbaum. “On this record, I cannot agree. The decision to remove Juror No. 13 was a tough call, and one the district court did not take lightly. But from the district court’s superior vantage point, it was necessary to ensure that a verdict was rendered based on the law and evidence -- a principle that is foundational to our system of justice.”
News4Jax spoke with Curtis Fallgatter, a former federal prosecutor who is not associated with the case, who said Brown would not have been convicted if that juror was removed.
“The reality is if he had not been kicked off the jury, there would not have been a conviction. That’s the whole reason the court of appeals feels it’s appropriate to have a retrial, because that gentlemen wasn’t going to acquit,” Fallgatter said.
Fallgater said the government will now have to decide whether or not to spend more taxpayer money to retry Brown who is 74 years old, and already served time in prison. He says high-ranking Department of Justice attorneys will have to weigh-in on this case if prosecutors pursue a retrial.
“You can’t go any higher in the courts. This is the end of the road,” Fallgatter said. “The only road above it is the U.S. Supreme Court, and it’s not the kind of case where the U.S. Supreme Court would weigh in.”
Fallgatter, who is now a criminal defense attorney, practicing in the Jacksonville area, joined us on The Morning Show on Friday to talk more about the ruling, and what could be next for the case:
John Delaney, a former Jacksonville mayor, was in office while Brown was in Congress. He’s a Republican who became allies with Brown, a Democrat.
He said after the conviction, he visited Brown several times in prison where he found her to be active in helping other female inmates with different issues. He said Brown was constantly upbeat and never lost faith.
“I’m happy for Corrine as a friend,” Delaney said. “And even though we disagree on just about everything politically, she is a decent person. She’s been a great ally.”
John Crossman, a longtime friend of Brown, told The Morning Show on Friday that he spoke with her after the ruling was announced Thursday night.
“They are very relieved as you might imagine,” Crossman said, adding that he hopes Brown can turn her experience into a chance for positive change. “I hope that she will bring a voice to people who have been voiceless. People in prison are marginalized people. They are largely lower-income people with less economic means, and a lot of times what that means is they don’t have a voice to tell their story.
Crossman said he believes Brown can now be that bridge.
“Where they need resources and support, I think she can do an excellent job bringing attention to that in today’s climate,” Crossman said. “And listen, I think no matter what side of this issue you are on, you are probably frustrated with our criminal justice system, and I think this can be an opportunity for healing and for hope and improvement.”
After The Morning Show interview aired, Brown called Crossman to thank him for his support.
The man who represented Brown when her case first went to trial said what happened on an appeal is rare. James Smith spoke with News4Jax about Corrigan, who he said he has great respect for.
“Despite his statement on the record that he was still going to follow the judge’s instructions and follow the law, the judge dismissed him because the judge believed that he was taking influence from an improper external force,” Smith said. “In other words, the judge came to the conclusion that the Juror was basing his decision on religious influences rather than the facts and the law.”
Corrine Brown headshot, as US Representative of Florida
PHOTOS: Corrine Brown’s career
Brown 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. Brown was sentenced to five years in prison but was released last year amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Brown’s conviction was upheld in January 2020 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 in what is known as an “en banc” hearing. The Atlanta-based court heard arguments in January.
The religious issues in the case drew attention and support for the former congresswoman, including in a friend-of-the-court brief filed by attorneys general from Nebraska, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Dakota and Texas.