A federal appeals court has overturned the conviction of a former U.S. representative from Florida who had been accused of running a sham charity and had served time in prison, with the judges finding that a juror had been wrongfully dismissed for saying that the Holy Spirit had told him that the former congresswoman was innocent.
In a 7-to-4 decision on Thursday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta granted the ex-congresswoman, Corrine Brown, a Democrat who served in Congress for more than two decades, a new trial in the fraud case that brought about her political downfall.
Ms. Brown, 74, of Jacksonville, was convicted in May 2017 on 18 criminal counts in connection with what prosecutors said was her personal use of more than $300,000 in donations from a charity that she had operated. They said that she had spent the money to pay for a lavish lifestyle that included N.F.L. tickets and a luxury stadium box for a Beyoncé concert.
She was sentenced to five years in prison and served more than two years before being granted her release on bond last year while awaiting a decision on her appeal. She had previously been under supervised release, her lawyer said, because of her age, an unspecified medical condition and the risk of Covid-19.
But the court’s majority found on Thursday that the judge who had presided over Ms. Brown’s case in U.S. District Court in Jacksonville had violated her constitutional right to a unanimous jury verdict when he removed a juror and replaced him with an alternate during the panel’s deliberations.
Shortly after deliberations had begun, the juror told the other members of the jury he had received divine guidance, prompting another juror to bring his comments to the attention of Judge Timothy Corrigan.
In a majority opinion, the appeals court wrote that Judge Corrigan had not had cause to dismiss the unidentified juror, known as Juror No. 13, whom he had questioned about the role of his faith in deliberations.
“We ask whether Juror No. 13’s religious statements amounted to proof beyond a reasonable doubt that he could not render a verdict based solely on the evidence and the law, thereby disqualifying him, despite substantial evidence that he was fulfilling the duty he had sworn to render,” the court’s majority wrote. “They did not.”
It was not immediately clear if federal prosecutors would seek to retry Ms. Brown, who was first elected to the U.S. House in 1992 and served until 2017 and was one of the first African-Americans elected to Congress from Florida. The prosecutors did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday night.
William Mallory Kent, a lawyer for Ms. Brown, said in an email on Thursday night that if there was to be a retrial in the case, it was unlikely to take place anytime soon.
“Congresswoman Brown is very pleased with the court’s decision,” Mr. Kent said.
Weeks after her indictment in 2016, Ms. Brown lost her seat in a primary election. She was convicted of mail and wire fraud and filing false tax returns.
According to prosecutors, Ms. Brown told donors that the money raised for the charity, One Door for Education, would help students pay for college and allow schools to receive computers.