Not long after word broke that a key witness scheduled to testify in Corrine Brown's sentencing hearing Thursday had backed out, the embattled former congresswoman arrived at the federal courthouse and gathered with supporters for a brief prayer circle before heading in to debate her fate.
Brown, 71, wore purple Thursday and so did many of her supporters.
She was convicted in May on 18 counts of conspiracy, fraud and filing false tax returns in a scheme that involved stealing money from a fake children’s charity: One Door for Education.
Brown's attorney had listed 22 character witnesses, ranging from religious leaders to a retired Marine Corps colonel to Brown's 89-year-old mother, to speak on Brown's behalf at Thursday's sentencing hearing.
They are expected to testify to the good Brown says she did in her decades in Congress.
Dr. Gasper Lazarra, a Ponte Vedra Beach orthodontist and philanthropist who donated to One Door, was on the defense's initial witness list. He testified for the prosecution during Brown's federal corruption trial and was expected to say that he has forgiven her and to request leniency.
Lazarra backed out Thursday morning, saying that he had conferred with his attorney and that he cannot participate in the hearing. The defense told our News4Jax partner it was a major blow to the prosecution’s case and that Brown should be sentenced to probation and community service.
Prosecutors are expected to argue Brown deserves time behind bars, saying that because of the high-profile nature of the case, the court needs to send a message to other political leaders about corruption.
They said in a scathing 50-page memo that despite what Brown might say she accomplished while in office, her position “enabled these crimes, and all the good things she'll claim she did only helped her pull it off more easily.”
During a sentencing hearing Wednesday for Brown's co-conspirators, prosecutors called the case one of the worst examples of corruption Jacksonville has ever seen.
Prosecutors said despite their role in the scheme, Carla Wiley, who founded the fraudulent charity, and Ronnie Simmons, Brown's chief of staff, deserved leniency for pleading guilty and serving as the federal government's star witnesses against Brown.
Judge Timothy Corrigan agreed Wednesday that Wiley and Simmons both qualified for reduced prison sentences because of their cooperation. Sentencing guidelines recommend roughly two years for Wiley and roughly three years for Simmons. Corrigan said he could decide on more or less prison time than the guidelines suggest, based on what he heard in the hearing.
Prosecutors said Wednesday that they want Brown to receive the stiffest penalty of the three convicted in the case, who prosecutors said worked together to create and use the $833,000 slush fund.
A court officer recommends seven to nine years in prison for Brown, who won't learn her fate until Dec. 4, when Corrigan will hand down his sentences for all three.
Wiley cried during her testimony Wednesday, saying "I can't say I'm sorry enough," and Simmons also apologized, saying he was "truly remorseful."
Simmons' mother spoke at the hearing and said she doesn't believe prison time would allow her son to repay his debt to society as much as mentoring young professionals would.
Simmons asked for probation, saying if he went to prison, it would be hard on his family, who he supports financially.
"It's been very difficult for my family," Simmons told News4Jax he left court.