A sharply divided federal appeals court Thursday upheld the conviction of former U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown in a charity scam, rejecting her arguments that a juror had been improperly dismissed because he said the "Holy Spirit" told him Brown was not guilty.
A majority of a three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals backed a decision by U.S. District Judge Timothy Corrigan to replace the juror with an alternate 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 Thursday's majority opinion, Judge Robin Rosenbaum focused heavily on a question of whether the dismissed juror, identified only as Juror 13, 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 (Corrigan) 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."
But Judge William Pryor wrote a scathing dissent, saying the dismissed juror had given assurances he would base his decision on the evidence.
Pryor also said the majority opinion could be used by lawyers in the future to try to keep evangelical Christians and African-Americans off juries. He wrote that evangelical Christians and African-Americans "believe they communicate with God at disproportionately high rates."
"For a juror to receive and rely on divine guidance is not misconduct," Pryor wrote. "When a conscientious juror asks God in prayer to assist her and believes that she has received his assistance, she has not taken instructions from an outside source. She has not performed the supernatural equivalent of a Google search. She has not made the Omniscient her own private eye to dig up additional evidence for or against the defendant. All she has done is to seek clarity of mind, insight, and discernment from that interior place where her conscious mind makes contact with what she believes is the divine. As long as the object of her prayers is an honest attempt to discern the facts from the evidence and to apply the law to those facts, the prayerful meditations of such a juror are no less valid a form of deliberation than any other."
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.
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.
The former congresswoman is serving her sentence at the Coleman federal correctional institution in Sumter County, according to the federal Bureau of Prisons website.
In Thursday's majority opinion and a concurring opinion, Rosenbaum and Conway emphasized that they were not saying jurors could be dismissed for praying or seeking divine guidance.
"I write separately to emphasize that this is not a case which turns on a juror’s religious beliefs or religious freedom to engage in prayer or seek guidance during deliberations when applying the law to the evidence in the case," Conway wrote in the concurring opinion. “Rather, it is a straightforward case about whether the district court --- having concluded based on direct questioning that a juror was not following the court’s instructions --- abused its discretion in dismissing that juror based on an assessment of the juror’s credibility and capacity to follow the court’s instructions."
But Pryor wrote that the "majority’s decision makes it far more difficult for the citizens of our circuit to be judged by juries that represent a cross-section of their communities."
"Not only does the majority’s decision deny Brown her right to the unanimous and uncoerced verdict of an impartial jury of her peers, it also imperils that right for other defendants in this circuit," he wrote. "It countenances discrimination against a substantial segment of the citizens in our circuit who pray for and believe they receive divine guidance in their daily affairs. And it permits district courts to disqualify these ordinary people from jury service for nothing more than expressing that belief --- even when there is good reason to think they are performing their duties."