ATLANTA (CN) —One year into former Congresswoman Corrine Brown’s five-year federal prison sentence, an 11th Circuit panel heard arguments Friday over whether her conviction should be overturned based on the trial court’s dismissal of a juror who said God told him Brown was not guilty.
After over two decades in Congress representing a Florida district that included Jacksonville, Brown was convicted on 18 counts of conspiracy, aiding and abetting mail and wire fraud, concealing facts on financial disclosure forms, and various tax-related charges for her role in a corruption conspiracy that involved stealing $600,000 from an education charity for disadvantaged children.
Brown, 72, was sentenced to five years and ordered to pay $515,000 in restitution.
In August 2017, U.S. District Judge Timothy Corrigan denied Brown’s motion for a new trial, finding she received a fair trial that was unaffected by his decision to dismiss a juror on the second day of jury deliberations.
According to the order, the juror said he “received information” from his “father in heaven” about how to proceed in the case and told fellow jurors at the beginning of deliberations that the Holy Spirit told him Brown was not guilty.
Corrigan decided to dismiss the juror.
“While the court found Juror No. 13 to be very earnest and sincere, and that Juror No. 13 likely believed that he was trying to following [sic] the court’s instructions, the court further observed that by making statements to his fellow jurors at the beginning of deliberations that he was receiving information from a higher authority who was directing him as to what verdict he should reach, he was acting inconsistently with the court’s instruction that the case be decided solely on the law and the evidence in the case,” the judge wrote.
Corrigan ultimately concluded that the juror was “following instructions from an outside source, which is not permitted, even when that source derives from one’s own religious beliefs.”
On Friday, Brown’s attorneys argued that the district court abused its discretion by dismissing the juror and urged the three-judge 11th Circuit panel to overturn her conviction.
Jacksonville attorney William Kent told the panel that Corrigan incorrectly based his decision on a finding that the juror would not be able to make his decision based purely on the facts of the case without external influence.
“The problem seems to me that religion is one of those things that injects an extra layer into this question,” U.S. Circuit Judge Robin Rosenbaum said. “Let’s say the juror said instead ‘I looked at Google and articles said she wasn’t guilty’ or announced that at the beginning of deliberations… Would that be a problem?”
“Google search is classic external influence, but external influence requires a real thing like a bribe… If [a juror] hears something in his mind, is that an external force?” Kent responded.
He continued, “You cannot get into mental process, whether it’s by religious belief or Cartesian logic.”
“I think we have to ask, did this juror examine and base his decision on evidence and whatever guidance he was receiving, or did he come to deliberations having already made a determination based on something other than the evidence?” Rosenbaum said.
The judge continued, “There’s a difference between asking God for guidance as you’re receiving and deliberating on evidence and coming into deliberations and immediately saying God told me she’s guilty or not guilty.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney David Rhodes argued on behalf of the government Friday and said Judge Corrigan did not commit any error by dismissing the juror.
“This isn’t a case where a juror has said, ‘I’m not going to follow the court’s instructions.’ He said a higher being told me she’s not guilty on all counts. He didn’t say anything in that statement that related to the [facts],” he said.
“The record doesn’t show his decision was related to deliberations. At the beginning of deliberations for count one of 24 counts, he said, ‘I’ve been told she’s not guilty on all 24 counts.’ A few hours later, he said, ‘I trust the Holy Ghost.’ That allowed the district court to find that rather than basing his decision on evidence, he was basing it on guidance from a higher power,” Rhodes added.
“Have we ever upheld dismissal in any case where a juror says I’ve received divine guidance, I’ve prayed on this, but I’m also following the court’s instruction? What if he just said he had prayed about it? Is that a problem?” U.S. Circuit Judge William Pryor Jr. asked.
“Not even a little bit,” Rhodes responded.
“We’ve said in regard to standard – and this court applies a tough legal standard – a juror should only be dismissed when no evidence exists a juror is basing his or her decision on evidence… I’m having a hard time seeing how the district court met that standard,” Pryor said.
Pryor and Rosenbaum were joined on the panel by Senior U.S. District Judge Anne Conway, sitting by designation from the Middle District of Florida.
The panel did not indicate when they might issue a decision in the case.