TALLAHASSEE — A divided federal appeals court late Thursday overturned the conviction of former Rep. Corrine Brown, ruling that a judge was wrong to remove a juror in her trial who said the “Holy Spirit” told him Brown was not guilty.
The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in a 7-4 decision said that Brown, who was found guilty in 2017 on 18 felony counts connected to using a phony charity as a personal slush fund, deserved a new trial on the corruption charges.
The former Democratic congresswoman from Jacksonville, who had been in office for more than two decades, had lost her bid for reelection the previous year after her seat was dramatically altered following a long-running legal battle over redistricting.
Chief Judge William Pryor, writing for the majority, said the decision of a district judge to remove the juror after deliberations had already begun in the trial was wrong because there was no evidence that the juror had engaged in misconduct or would have ultimately held out against a conviction.
“Corrine Brown was entitled to the unanimous verdict of a jury of ordinary citizens,” Pryor wrote. “The removal of Juror No. 13—a juror who listened for God’s guidance as he sat in judgment of Brown and deliberated over the evidence against her—deprived her of one.”
Judge Charles Wilson, in a dissenting opinion, said the appeals court should not have overruled the district judge who talked directly to the juror before making the decision to remove him.
“The majority casts the district court’s decision as misconstruing religious expression while failing to safeguard the right to a unanimous jury verdict. On this record, I cannot agree,” wrote Wilson. “The decision to remove Juror No. 13 was a tough call, and one the district court did not take lightly. But from the district court’s superior vantage point, it was necessary to ensure that a verdict was rendered based on the law and evidence—a principle that is foundational to our system of justice.”
Brown, whose political career began in the Florida Legislature, was famed for her clout and ability to motivate voters in her district.
Her district for years had stretched from Jacksonville to Orlando and included various minority neighborhoods in between. But after a lengthy legal battle, the Florida Supreme Court in 2015 approved new congressional districts that shifted her district westward from Duval County all the way to Gadsden County west of the state capital.
Brown challenged the new district in federal court, but after losing the battle, she ran for reelection.
With her corruption trial looming at the time, Rep. Al Lawson, a former state senator from Tallahassee, defeated Brown in the Democratic primary and has held the seat since then.
Brown was sentenced to five years, but she was released from prison last year during the Covid-19 pandemic.
A three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit upheld her conviction in January 2020, but the full court decided to take up the case.