Deliberations start over after alternate juror seated in Corrine Brown trial

Change prompted by complaint raised by another juror in federal trial

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – An alternate was seated Wednesday in the Corrine Brown federal corruption trial after a juror raised questions about comments made by another juror.

That juror, No. 8, contacted the court Tuesday night, saying that she was concerned because there was another juror talking about "higher beings." The judge spoke to attorneys from both sides and decided to seal the courtroom Wednesday morning to interview the juror who complained to see if any actions needed to be taken.

After that interview, the judge dismissed juror No. 13, without explaining the reason but saying it was a "legal" one, and seated the first alternate, over the objections of Brown's defense attorney, James Smith.

"I have found good cause to dismiss one juror and seat an alternate," Judge Timothy Corrigan said.
Local attorney Gene Nichols, who has been serving as one of the legal analysts for News 6 partner WJXT-TV, said that the seating of an alternate juror is likely "not good news for Corrine Brown."

The change shifts the racial makeup of the jury, but the gender breakdown remains the same with seven men and five women. There are now seven white jurors, three black jurors and two Hispanic jurors.

The juror who was dismissed was an unemployed white male from Middleburg who served in the Navy. The alternate juror who was seated is a Hispanic male who was a former student government officer at the University of North Florida and worked with UNF president John Delaney, who was one of just four witnesses to testify in Brown's defense.

The alternates were at the court during deliberations but were watching movies, the judge said.

Because the alternate juror was not sitting in on the previous 12 hours of deliberations, the jurors were instructed to set aside the previous discussion and begin the process again. 

When Corrigan asked the jurors if they could begin deliberations again, they nodded agreement.

Within half an hour, the jury came back with a question for the judge.

The alternates were sitting in on all of the court proceedings over the last two weeks as prosecutors have tried to convince the jury that Brown, a Democrat who represented the Florida district that included Jacksonville from 1993 to 2016, funneled money from an unregistered Virginia charity into her personal accounts.

She has pleaded not guilty, blaming her former chief of staff Ronnie Simmons for stealing the money.

There were no indications the jury had reached verdicts on any of the 22 charges against Brown, but that process will start over, regardless of any decisions they had made.

Before the complaints were raised Tuesday night, sparking the changes Wednesday, the jurors, looking visibly weary, told the judge just before 5 p.m. Tuesday that after a full day of deliberations, they wanted to adjourn for the day and resume their work Wednesday morning. The judge again urged them not to speak about the case with anyone and told them to be back in court at 8:45 a.m. Wednesday.

At least two of the jurors appeared noticeably frustrated at that time.

The original jurors, who included eight white jurors, three black jurors and one Hispanic juror, spent nearly four hours behind closed doors Monday before being dismissed for the night and returning Tuesday morning to begin deliberations just before 9 a.m.

Six members of the jury were spotted during a break Tuesday by a court observer, who said they appeared "relaxed and chatty," were cracking jokes among themselves and did not look stressed.

The jury could find Brown guilty on any or all of the charges, but each verdict must be unanimous or a mistrial will be declared on that charge, which could lead to a retrial.

Brown remains 'prayerful'

While awaiting the verdict at the Jacksonville Landing on Wednesday, Brown told WJXT-TV that she remained “prayerful.”

“I love the Landing. It's such a beautiful place,” she said. "The water is so peaceful."

The last 12 days have been anything but peaceful for the 70-year-old former representative, who has been on trial facing 22 federal charges, including participating in a conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, mail and wire fraud, concealing material facts, obstruction of IRS laws and filing false tax returns.

WATCH: Corrine Brown talks to News4Jax at Landing | Jury deliberates fate of former congresswoman

“It's been a tough 15 months, and I'm glad that it's coming to an end," Brown said.  “It's just been a very difficult time. … The community has been wonderful; the people are praying. We're going through it together.”

Closing arguments

Prosecutors wrapped up their closing arguments Monday in the fraud and tax evasion trial, calling on jurors to use their "common sense" as they deliberate her fate.

Prosecutor Eric Olshan spent more than an hour reviewing the highlights of the government's fraud and tax charges against Brown, saying that she funneled money from One Door for Education into her personal accounts and lied about her income and contributions on her taxes.

Olshan said Brown. who was indicted last July, claimed on her taxes to have given four times more to charity ($28,000 a year) than she actually gave ($6,600 a year).

Federal prosecutors said One Door raised $833,000 but gave only $1,200 in scholarships. Olshan told jurors that the real victims are the worthy students who could have gotten scholarships.

RELATED: A look back at a roller coaster trial

In his closing argument, James Smith, continued to insist that Brown trusted and was deceived by her former chief of staff, Ronnie Simmons, and his one-time girlfriend, Carla Wiley, who founded and ran One Door. 

The trial

Brown lost re-election after she was indicted last summer. On the stand, she said that she didn't know about the scheme until after the indictment was filed, and that her only mistake was being too trusting of Simmons, and perhaps too laissez-faire about her personal finances.

Over several days of testimony, prosecutors documented that at least $300,000 of One Door's funds paid for receptions, luxury boxes at sporting events and concerts, and trips and expenses for Brown and her associates.

Simmons, who has pleaded guilty to two related charges, testified that Brown ordered him to take money from One Door's accounts and deposit it into her personal bank account. He said he also forged checks from the charity but left the amount blank and gave the checks to Brown in her office, also on her orders.

IMAGES: Courtroom sketches from closing arguments | 
RELATED: Recent history of members of Congress breaking the law

Simmons said Brown ordered how all of the One Door money was spent and no one in her office ever dared to tell her "no." 

Under cross-examination, Simmons admitted that he lied for years about One Door, that he lied to the FBI when investigators came to question him about it and that he lied to Brown's defense attorney when the attorney, at one point, was going to represent him along with Brown.

Simmons said he had to be overly cooperative with the government to get a reduced sentence for his own crimes.

Smith focused his closing argument on whether a "self-admitted liar and thief with a criminal conviction" for assault against his girlfriend and "a vested interest in what happens" in Brown's trial is someone the jury should trust.

"His handwriting is literally all over this case," Smith said. “He fooled One Door for Education, he fooled Carla Wiley, and he certainly fooled the investigators. I’m confident he’s not going to fool you.”

Smith told the jury that Simmons repeatedly used women for his benefit: getting his sister on Brown's payroll so he could steal her paycheck, using his girlfriend's charity to enrich himself and using Brown for money and power.

Brown's testimony Friday was briefly halted after she broke down under cross-examination and shouted, "They're trying to destroy my life," as jurors filed out of the courtroom for a break.

Prosecutors hope jurors won't be distracted by Brown's emotional outburst Friday and will focus on the facts the government has presented.

"She exercised total control. No one told her no, but that didn't stop her, ladies and gentlemen, from using the power of her office to benefit herself,” Olshan told the jury Monday. “But you can say, 'No, enough,' because the defendant is guilty of each and every count in the indictment.”

About the Authors:

Jim Piggott is the reporter to count on when it comes to city government and how it will affect the community.