Jacksonville, FL — Former Congresswoman Corrine Brown was found guilty on 18 of 22 federal charges, but now, she's pushing for a new trial.
Brown’s attorney has filed a motion that says her Sixth Amendment right to a jury of her peers and to a unanimous verdict were violated with the removal of a juror during deliberations. An alternate juror was seated, and the verdicts were rendered about a day and a half later.
FULL COVERAGE: The federal case of former Congresswoman Corrine Brown
A motion for a judgement of acquittal has also been filed. These come as the defense notifies the court that a new attorney, Samuel Walker, will be joining Brown’s legal team. He’s from the same firm as the attorney that’s taken her through trial, James Smith III.
Motion for a new trial
WOKV was in the courtroom throughout the trial, including a hearing after a day and a half of jury deliberations where District Judge Timothy Corrigan told attorneys that a juror had contacted him about concerns with another juror. While much of the nature of that juror's concerns were initially discussed in a closed session of court, WOKV has since obtained the transcript, which shows Juror 13 had said at the outset of deliberations that the "Holy Spirit" told him Brown was not guilty on all charges.
Juror 13 was questioned by Corrigan and told the court he believed he was following instructions to consider the evidence presented at trial and the law as instructed. He further said his religious or moral believes were not interfering with his ability to decide the case as instructed. The juror who initially raised a concern to the court even said Juror 13’s statements weren’t getting in the way of the deliberations, according to the transcript.
Corrigan carefully worded his ruling in his decision to remove that Juror 13, saying sincerely held religious beliefs and prayers for guidance are not ground for dismissal, but Juror 13 making the statement that he did before the deliberations took hold show inconsistencies with the instructions. Corrigan also noted that Juror 13 said specifically that the “Holy Spirit” had directed him on the verdict.
Corrigan ruled that, while it seemed Juror 13 was “very earnest, very sincere” in his belief and attempt to follow the court’s instructions, his statement about the “Holy Spirit” directing his verdict was a “disqualifying statement”. That further led to the conclusion that there was “no substantial possibility” the juror could follow the court’s instructions and that he using an “external force” in his decision making.
In the motion for a new trial, Brown’s attorney, James Smith III argues that the record does not support the court’s conclusion that the “Holy Spirit” is an external force.
“There is a substantial possibility the holy spirit was actually the juror’s own mind or spirit telling him that one or more witnesses had not testified truthfully,” the motion says.
Smith focuses on the fact that Juror 13 believed he was deciding the case based on the evidence and the court’s instructions, and that he believed he was receiving “guidance” from “his father in heaven”. The motion argues that the court must find the juror’s dissent isn’t based on the evidence- beyond a reasonable doubt- and that wasn’t done here. Smith distinguishes Brown’s case from two cases which were cited in the decision to dismiss, because both of those cases involved eleven jurors testifying that the twelfth juror was refusing to follow the court’s instructions.
In his claim that Brown’s right to a unanimous verdict was violated, Smith argues the other jurors did not testify that Juror 13 wasn’t following the court’s instructions, and in fact one of the jurors had testified the statement wasn’t interfering in deliberations. According to Smith, Juror 13 showed his decision would be based on his thoughts and beliefs, and his determination of not guilty was based on his assessment of witness credibility.
Because of that, Smith argues the record doesn’t show beyond a reasonable doubt that Juror 13’s “not guilty” verdict was based on anything but the evidence, so Brown’s right to a unanimous verdict was violated.
Smith further argues Brown’s right to a jury of her peers was violated. In these arguments, Smith focuses on Corrigan’s statement that “there’s nothing wrong with praying for guidance”.
“If there is nothing wrong with praying for guidance from the holy spirit, then there can be nothing wrong with receiving guidance from the holy spirit,” Smith says in the motion.
He called on a Fourth Circuit case over the presence of a Bible in the deliberation room to further his argument, quoting portions of the ruling which speak to the interaction between religious beliefs and jury service.
"To ask that jurors become fundamentally different people when they enter the jury room is at odds with the idea that the jury be 'drawn from a fair cross section of the community'," the portion of the Robinson v. Polk case reads.
This builds to Smith’s argument that Juror 13’s reference to a “Holy Spirit” may not be an outside force, but may instead be evidence of his “appreciation of the seriousness of his duty” and “an aspect of their identity”.
“Indeed, for some, the holy spirit, whether one exists or not, may provide the strength to render whatever verdict the law and the evidence compel,” Smith argues in the motion.
He adds that dismissing a juror because of reliance on a “Holy Spirit” could risk excluding much of the population from jury service.
To close, Smith says determining the “Holy Spirit” is an external force is a “philosophical determination”.
“Accordingly, justice requires a new trial,” he says.
Motion for acquittal
A second motion filed by Brown’s legal team says the government’s case didn’t establish “the essential elements” of the charges Brown faced.
Several references are made to the testimony of Brown’s Chief of Staff Ronnie Simmons. Brown’s defense was built on the argument that she became increasingly reliant on Simmons, and he took advantage of that trust. The defense argued Simmons controlled Brown’s finances and managed her office, and while she was negligent in handling her personal affairs, there was no intent of criminal wrongdoing.
“Had she paid closer attention to her finances she might have discovered Mr. Simmons misdeeds,” the motion says.
Instead, Smith argues the prosecution asked the jury to speculate about what Brown was thinking and to rely on “guilt by association”.
“The government presented a purely circumstantial evidence case,” the motion says.
Smith says a portion of Simmons’ testimony “eviscerated” the government’s theory about Brown’s guilt.
“To the surprise of the government, Mr. Simmons provided exculpatory on behalf of the defendant. One of the government’s primary theories of guilt was that the defendant never intended to use any of the funds solicited from donor for charitable or legitimate purposes. Mr. Simmons testified it was in fact the intent with regard to the funds raised for the events and despite the government’s attempt to impeach him on that point he remained resolute,” the motion reads.
That is referring to a portion of Simmons’ testimony where he said they always intended to use events to raise money for a sham charity organization called One Door For Education, but never could because of high costs. When asked by prosecutors how long he would let the alleged mismanagement go on before changing something, Simmons could not give a definitive answer.
The motion additionally says Brown never controlled One Door accounts or even served on the organization’s Board. She also had only met a third alleged co-conspirator, the President of One Door Carla Wiley- on a few occasions. Brown says she didn’t know that One Door was not a legitimate charity when she solicited donations, and in fact did see at least one example of their work paying off- when almost two dozen students were sent on an exchange trip to China.
Finally, the motion argues that Brown’s innocence is boosted by the fact that she was acquitted on four of the charges. Smith writes it doesn’t make “logical sense” to believe Brown was involved in this scheme, but be acquitted on these charges.
Case in review
Brown was convicted on May 11th of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, five counts of aiding and abetting mail fraud, and seven counts of aiding and abetting wire fraud in connection to her soliciting money for a sham charity organization called "One Door For Education". Prosecutors argued Brown, her Chief of Staff Ronnie Simmons, and One Door President Carla Wiley raised money for the group, but used the funds for personal expenses and lavish events.
Brown was also convicted of engaging in a scheme to conceal material facts, corruptly endeavoring to obstruct the due administration of internal revenue law, and three counts of filing a false tax return- generally involving Brown not reporting income she received from One Door and overreporting her charitable contributions.
Sentencing dates have not yet been set for any of the three, with all remaining out of prison as the court proceedings continue.