A federal appeals court appeared divided Tuesday as it heard arguments about whether to overturn the 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.
The full 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is weighing whether U.S. District Judge Timothy Corrigan was justified in replacing the juror --- known as Juror 13 --- with an alternate before Brown was convicted on 18 felony counts related to a charity scam.
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 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.”
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 religious issues in the challenge have drawn 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.
In addition to Clement, Brown has been represented in the appeal by attorneys from the Texas-based group First Liberty Institute. Clement argued Tuesday that Brown’s rights were violated under the U.S. Constitution’s Sixth Amendment, which spells out the right to trial by juries for criminal defendants.
Brown was sentenced to five years in prison but was released last year amid the COVID-19 pandemic. If the appeal is successful, it likely would lead to a new trial.