With less than two weeks before two former Jacksonville City Councilors face 38 counts of fraud related to misusing economic development money, both defendants sought on Tuesday to change the trial.
One of the motions actually succeeded: a thirty-day continuance that will push the trial back to Sept. 23.
Katrina Brown and Reggie Brown face 38 counts of conspiracy to defraud, according to federal prosecutors.
The feds are accusing the pair of extracting hundreds of thousands of dollars for personal use from a Small Business Administration-backed loan provided for Katrina Brown’s family’s barbecue sauce plant.
Katrina Brown, who decided (against the strong advice of the presiding judge) to represent herself against the federal charges, wanted the trial moved to March.
The former Councilwoman lacks legal experience and says she wants the six-month extension to prepare her case. The trial had already been pushed back six months, and prosecutors opposed any further delay.
Reggie Brown’s position was in favor of a speedy trial, further complicating the play.
Judge Marcia Morales Howard wondered why after two years of pre-trial representation more time was needed to marshal a defense.
The former Councilwoman contended that while she was aware of being investigated since 2016, she wasn’t privy to knowing what she was being investigated for.
She likened having a court-appointed lawyer to being in the passenger seat on a road trip.
The Councilwoman said she wanted to represent herself long before the filing, but was thwarted by her lawyers.
The judge was unmoved, contending that there was no justification for waiting until the eve of trial to make this move.
“The fact that you were contemplating going pro se for such a long time really weighs against you. This is the second time,” Morales Howard said. “This case has been pending now for close to 15 months.”
After an extended in camera hearing between Ms. Brown and the judge, the government had its say.
“We’re at the 14-month mark,” noted Tysen Duva for the prosecution. “It’s now time for the trial.”
Duva also noted that the bulk of evidence was the bank records for Brown’s various companies, which she would have had access to. And even a limited continuance would have little use, he added, given Brown’s lack of facility with the law.
“It appears that Ms. Brown’s decision to represent herself is simply her decision,” Morales Howard said.
However, the judge suggested a 30-day continuance, which would be a Sept. 23 trial term.
“There are no further continuances … we will plow through. Nothing is going to change the fact that we are going to trial [in September],” Morales Howard warned.
In a bit of foreshadowing of what is to come, Brown asked questions about a forfeiture motion filed by the prosecution that won’t come into play until sentencing.
In light of his co-defendant’s continued representation issues, Reggie Brown petitioned to sever the two cases.
The former Councilman had petitioned unsuccessfully to do so already, but a change in circumstances revived the motion … ultimately to no avail.
“Now he faces the prospect of sitting helplessly by while Ms. Brown flails about trying to be both lawyer and client,” the pleading contended. “This spectacle can only prejudice his case in the eyes of the jury and make it all but impossible for the jury to reach an individualized verdict as to him.”
Federal prosecutors stood their ground, contending that case law in cases where one defendant goes pro se does not permit a severance based on that alone.
Mr. Brown’s lawyer contended that it’s the court’s discretion to sever the cases, citing a “great deal of concern” about the co-defendant’s ability to mount a coherent defense.
Judge Howard outlined the ways in which the court would ensure that the pro se defense doesn’t compromise that of Mr. Brown.
“I can address the potential prejudice … I do not find that severance is warranted,” Morales Howard contended.
The pair face a compendium of charges: Conspiracy to defraud, 13 counts of mail fraud, 13 counts of wire fraud, six counts of illegal monetary transactions (money laundering charges, all of them involving checks of over $20,000), two counts of attempted bank fraud (trying to secure a loan using forged information), two false statements to a federally insured institution.
Jury selection is slated to begin Aug. 14.
The prosecution case will last roughly a week after the Aug. 19 start, while the defense case will not be that lengthy.
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