A Pennsylvania appeals court panel refused Monday to overturn the convictions of a former Democratic state representative from Philadelphia on conflict of interest and bribery charges stemming from an undercover sting operation.
The Superior Court judges reached that decision despite Vanessa Brown’s claims of racial bias and prosecutorial impropriety.
The court’s decision, set in an opinion by Senior Judge John L. Musmanno, comes two years after Dauphin County Judge Scott A. Evans sentenced Brown to 23 months of probation and ordered her to pay $4,000 in restitution.
Investigators said Brown took that amount of money in payoffs from an undercover agent with the state attorney general’s office who was posing as a lobbyist during an investigation into corruption in state government.
Brown, who is Black, was convicted by a Dauphin County jury at the end of a tortuous legal course that began when former Attorney General Kathleen Kane refused to prosecute, citing concerns about the validity of the investigation mounted by her predecessor, Tom Corbett. Brown was later indicted by a grand jury.
On appeal to the state court, Brown claimed she didn’t get a fair trial because Blacks were “purposely excluded” from the jury that heard her case. Two prospective jurors, both Black women, were stricken from the panel based on prosecution challenges.
Brown focused her appeal on the striking of one of those jurors, who prosecutors said seemed inattentive. They also claimed that juror, a behavioral specialist, might overanalyze witness testimony.
Musmanno found that Brown did not prove that Evans’ decision to allow the striking of that prospective juror was “clearly erroneous.”
Brown also claimed her lawyer should have been allowed to challenge the credibility of a principal in the corruption investigation, former state prosecutor Frank Fina, by showing the jurors “racist and pornographic” emails in his possession.
Evans barred the presentation of that evidence after finding it was irrelevant to Brown’s case.
Musmanno upheld the banning of the email evidence. He noted that Fina didn’t testify regarding Brown’s guilt, but only regarding the credibility of a confidential informant in the case. Even without the emails, Brown’s lawyer was able to question Fina about bias, Musmanno found.
This past February, Fina lost his law license for a year due to his handling of a grand jury witness in an unrelated case, the child-sex prosecution of former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky.
Brown’s final claim on appeal, that Dauphin County prosecutors should have been barred from the case, was rejected by Musmanno as well.
Dauphin County and Philadelphia prosecutors jointly handled the case at first, but the Dauphin team took Brown to trial alone after a conflict of interest was discovered involving the Philly DA’s office. Musmanno concluded that Brown didn’t show that the Dauphin prosecutors were also tainted by that same conflict of interest.