In case you’ve been lost in the woods playing Pokémon Go with a pack of clowns, the local trial of the decade is going down at the federal courthouse in Downtown Duval.
For her involvement with the One Door for Education scholarship fund that prosecutors assert was a sham used to enrich her, former Congresswoman Corrine Brown is charged with 22 federal counts of fraud and corruption. Brown’s longtime aide Ronnie Simmons has already rolled on her, as has One Door’s president Carla Wiley.
Based on this, the revolving door of attorneys that briefly represented Brown before the relatively unknown James Smith from Orlando came on board last September, and the copious evidence prosecutors plan to present at trial, word is that it ain’t looking good for our hometown gal. Many believe that Brown is fixin’ to get a one-way ticket to the pokey; indeed, that may be her fate. But it’s also naïve to think the prosecution’s case is a slam-dunk.
See, jury trial is equal parts theater and evidence. If Brown via Smith spins a more compelling tale than the prosecution, the little lady from Jacksonville may walk out of that courthouse a free woman. Sure, it’s true that the feds allege that of the $800,000 One Door collected for scholarships, just $1,200 was given to students, that the rest of the funds paid for private suites at EverBank Field, a high-falutin’ golf tournament, and the like. And it’s true that in her time as the highest-ranking local Democrat, Brown made plenty of enemies, including some within her own party.
You know what else is true? Corrine Brown is a charming, petite, 70-year-old black woman who spent nearly a quarter-century in Congress. Her colloquialisms alone make her a sympathetic defendant. And those hats. #Adorbs. It also doesn’t hurt that, since she’s no longer in office, even if Brown wanted to defraud donors, she’d have a helluva harder time doing it.
Scoff if you want, but other defendants have walked for less, even in lock-’em-up Florida. George Zimmerman and Casey Anthony ring any bells? They were accused of murder; at worst, Corrine Brown is accused of being a thief who stole from the rich to enrich her britches. There are lots of people who won’t be particularly bothered by that.
And it cannot go without mention that we are in extremely tense times in terms of race relations, particularly locally.
Case in point: Three weeks ago, mere blocks from where witnesses in Brown’s trial will swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help them God, a horrified nation watched cops beat a young, deaf, black man unconscious. It doesn’t take an attorney of F. Lee Bailey’s caliber to draw a parallel between Corrine Brown’s prosecution and a defenseless protester getting fisted by the long arm of the law. Nor to remind everyone that just last week, another powerful black female politician from Duval County was on the receiving end of a tirade that included words like “this bitch,” “girl” and, though it didn’t refer to her, the penultimate racial slur that starts with an ‘n’.
If I were representing Brown, that’s how I’d play it. Cast her as the victim of overzealous prosecutors, shady opportunists and, especially, all the ‘isms’: racism, sexism, even ageism.
This will not be easy. The evidence is stacked against her and her longtime confidant is ready to tell tales. Still, it is not impossible. Reasonable doubt, after all, is the highest legal burden to summit.
For their part, prosecutors can overcome the onus of vilifying a former pillar of the community who’s already been brought low by the proceedings against her by casting Brown as the real evildoer, as someone willing to snatch scholarships from poor kids so she could hobnob with big ballers in stadium suites, as someone who stole opportunities for advancement from her own people. The evidence may be damning, but evidence alone will not put a figure of Corrine Brown’s stature in prison. If and only if they are successful at making the sugar-sweet, everybody’s grandma figure that Brown has done a particularly convincing job of presenting of late into a scheming, conniving turncoat will prosecutors bag the big fish they so desperately covet and send the former congresswoman to prison.
The truth of the matter is that regardless of what happens at her trial, Corrine Brown has already lost. Her beloved political career is over. She knows it, the prosecutors know it, the jury will probably also know it even before opening statements. So then what is to be gained by stripping away Brown’s remaining dignity, putting her in an orange jumpsuit and shackles and delivering her to prison to become just another black person incarcerated by the state? Nothing but bragging rights or, er, um, justice—inasmuch as such exists in America.