Continuing to fight her conviction on fraud and tax charges, former U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown is asking a full federal appeals court to decide whether a juror was improperly dismissed from her trial because he said the “Holy Spirit” told him Brown was not guilty.
Brown’s attorneys last week asked the full 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to take up the case, after a sharply divided three-judge panel upheld the conviction last month.
The appeal centers on a decision by U.S. District Judge Timothy Corrigan to replace the juror who cited the Holy Spirit with an alternate juror during Brown’s 2017 trial. The former 12-term Democratic congresswoman from Jacksonville was ultimately convicted on 18 felony counts and sentenced to five years in prison.
In a 30-page brief filed Thursday, Brown’s attorneys pointed to a tough legal standard for dismissing jurors during trial deliberations. The brief said the three-judge appellate panel last month “erred by employing an overly deferential standard of review that, as a result, effectively determines that groups believing in the Holy Spirit’s guidance, such as evangelical Christians, are incapable of serving on a jury.”
“Ultimately, both the district court (Corrigan) and the panel mischaracterize prayer as an external influence rather than an internal experience,” the brief said. “For a Christian, saying ‘I trust the Holy Spirit’ is roughly equivalent to saying ‘I trust my gut.’ Such a belief is consistent with evaluating the evidence --- it is not inherently disqualifying. The record below provides ample evidence reasonably supporting the possibility that Juror 13 (the dismissed juror) referred to prayer in this way.”
But in the 2-1 majority decision last month, appeals-court Judge Robin Rosenbaum focused heavily on a question of whether the dismissed juror could have decided the case based on the evidence. He was dismissed during jury deliberations after another juror reported concerns to Corrigan about the man’s Holy Spirit comments.
“Here, the district court dismissed Juror 13, plainly and simply, because on this particular record, it concluded as a matter of fact that Juror 13 was not capable of rendering a verdict based on the evidence,” Rosenbaum wrote in an opinion joined by Judge Anne Conway. “Our holding today is a very narrow one, based on the particular facts of this record. That record reflects that the district court was very careful to ensure it was not dismissing Juror 13 because of Juror 13’s faith or because Juror 13 had prayed for and thought he had received guidance in evaluating the evidence and in actually making a decision based on that evidence. The district court showed that it understood --- and we take this opportunity to emphasize --- these things are allowed under our system and continue to be permitted fully under our decision today, whether jurors believe they communicate with a higher being or not, as long as the juror is willing and able to root his verdict in the evidence.”
Brown, now 73, 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. She is serving her sentence at the Coleman federal correctional institution in Sumter County, according to the federal Bureau of Prisons website.
In sentencing Brown, Corrigan issued a 25-page order that said the One Door for Education 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.
But in fighting the conviction, Brown’s attorneys have focused on the dismissal of the juror and raised the prospect of religious discrimination. In the brief last week asking the full Atlanta-based appeals court to take up the case, the attorneys wrote that “seeking the Holy Spirit’s guidance in the course of everyday life comes naturally to many believers, as does expressing their decision-making process in terms to that effect.”
“By finding Juror 13’s statements inherently disqualifying, the panel decision effectively disqualifies from jury service the millions of people who believe in the guidance of the Holy Spirit, such as evangelical Christians,” said the brief, filed by Jacksonville attorney William Mallory Kent and attorneys with the Texas-based First Liberty Institute.