Originally created 04/27/01

Jurors find ex-tax commissioner guilty of theft



DECATUR, Ga. - In the end, they say, they didn't have a choice.

Jurors found former Liberty County Tax Commissioner Carolyn Brown guilty Thursday on all five counts in a theft and racketeering trial in which she dismissed her attorneys, offered no evidence and never questioned any witnesses who testified against her.

"Everybody wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt, but there was no way to do that," said Virginia Hawkins, one of the DeKalb County jurors who found Ms. Brown guilty on four counts of theft and one count of racketeering. "We thought it was unfortunate there was nothing presented in her defense, but there was not anything we could do about it."

Jurors deliberated for about 61/2 hours Wednesday and Thursday before rendering their verdict. Atlantic Judicial Circuit Superior Court Judge A. "Ronnie" Rahn postponed sentencing in the case for about two weeks.

Ms. Brown, who will be sentenced in Liberty County, faces up to 100 years in prison.

A 53-year-old Liberty County native who was first elected to handle the county's tax money in 1992, Ms. Brown hugged family members and supporters shortly after the verdict was read Wednesday.

She remained publicly upbeat, shaking hands with Assistant District Attorney Jay Stewart, who prosecuted the case, and joking with court observers that the two-week delay in sentencing gives her time to go to Disney World.

But she also suggested she plans to appeal the verdict.

"We're going to continue based on certain facts put in the transcript," said Ms. Brown, "Even changing venues doesn't help if you have the same judge."

Jurors found that Ms. Brown illegally wrote herself more than $1.6 million in county checks between 1995-99. Prosecutors called a series of county officials and financial officers who said Ms. Brown was warned repeatedly, starting in 1995, that writing herself the checks was wrong and urged to stop.

"That's the only verdict they could reach based on the evidence," Mr. Stewart said. "The evidence was that compelling; it was an enormous amount of money."

But Ms. Brown maintained that she didn't know writing the checks was wrong until the Georgia Supreme Court ruled against her in a civil case about four months ago. She said the law was confusing and that she was merely paying herself the same way former tax commissioners had paid themselves.

The case, which has been a subject of controversy in the county and written about extensively in the media since the early 1990s, was moved to the DeKalb County Courthouse because of pre-trial publicity.

The trial started down an unusual path Wednesday morning, after Ms. Brown's attorneys - Abda Lee Quillian and Michael Edwards - unsuccessfully attempted to have the case thrown out because a court reporter had used a piece of recording equipment she is not certified by the state to use.

Ms. Brown said the attorneys then tried to convince her to plead guilty in the case and seek a sentence of two years in prison and 20 years on probation. Maintaining her innocence, Ms. Brown dismissed the attorneys.

But Judge Rahn refused her request to put the trial on hold while she sought a new attorney. Ms. Brown sat at the defense table alone for about two hours Wednesday morning, offering no objections as witness after witness testified against her.

On Wednesday afternoon, an Atlanta attorney arrived to defend her for the rest of the trial. But prosecutors successfully had him disqualified because another lawyer in his firm worked in the Atlantic Circuit district attorney's office while Ms. Brown's case was being prepared.

Ms. Brown defended herself for the rest of the day - calling no witnesses and offering a 45-minute closing argument that was interrupted by prosecutors and the judge 31 times because her comments strayed outside what's legally allowed during arguments.

The proceedings didn't sit well with Ms. Brown's supporters, some of whom drove 41/2 hours from Liberty County every day for the trial.

"If the judge is going to send you off to prison or turn you loose, (jury members) need to hear it all," said Wesley Calhoun, of Decatur, a former Glynn County resident who attended every day of the trial with his wife, Grace.

In addition to not calling witnesses, Ms. Brown complained that she was not allowed to testify about how the money she moved into her personal accounts was spent. She has maintained that part of the money was spent on her county office and on federal taxes for the county.

Attorneys with Johnson, Freeman and Perkins-Hooker, the firm that attempted to defend Ms. Brown on Wednesday afternoon, said she was "railroaded" and that the trial's strange twists open it up to being successfully appealed.

Prosecutors disagreed.

"I'm confident in Judge Rahn's rulings," Mr. Stewart said.

On Wednesday morning, the jury emerged from their deliberation room several times - once to listen to recorded testimony and twice to ask Judge Rahn for clarifications of the law.

After he explained to them that, under Georgia statute, being ignorant of a law does not excuse a suspect from breaking that law, they returned about 10 minutes later with their verdict.

"I feel a little sorry for her," said Ms. Hawkins, a Decatur resident and employee at a nonprofit organization. "I feel she was confused ... but she continued to take the money.

"When you're confused, you stop doing what you're doing until you know what's right."

Reach Doug Gross at (404) 589-8424 or mnews@mindspring.com.