Even after all his years as a defense attorney, Anthony Suarez still gets nervous at verdict time.
“When the jury comes in, my hands are still cold – and I’m not on trial.”
It’s an inherent tension, one that his client was able to shed when he agreed to plead guilty and help federal prosecutors build their case against former Congresswoman Corrine Brown.
“It’s cathartic, and actually quite healthy when you cross that line,” says Suarez. “You just clean yourself and you go forward.”
Ronnie Simmons was a key witness in the federal fraud and corruption case against Brown, but it came at a great personal cost. Forced to turn against his longtime boss and friend, he became regarded as a pariah among former peers.
“You come to the realization that: yesterday you were a hero, today you’re a bum,” says Suarez.
Simmons reported to prison last Monday, to begin his 4-year sentence. It’s a punishment that Suarez calls unfair – and one he thinks will could hurt future prosecutions.
“I think he was unjustly sentenced,” he tells First Coast News. “[Brown] perjured herself on the stand, she obstructed justice -- and she gets only one more year difference from herself and my client? I don’t think that was fair.”
Suarez says between his client’s “substantial assistance” to prosecutors and federal sentencing guidelines, he was confident Simmons would get 3 years. He thought Brown would get 8. In the end, he got 4, and she 5.
U.S. District Judge Timothy Corrigan noted at sentencing that Simmons had entered into a separate fraud – creating a fake government job for his sister, and taking most of the salary for himself. Besides his testimony for the government, Corrigan said, he saw little difference between Simmons and Brown.
“But for his decision to cooperate and accept responsibility by pleading guilty,” Corrigan wrote in his sentencing order, “the Court views him as on par with Ms. Brown.”
“I thought the sacrifice he made was just not appreciated by the judge as he should have,” Suarez tells First Coast News. “[Simmons] could have maintained his relationship with Corrine. He did not have to get the reputation in the community that he became an informant or a rat -- and just served 12 more months.”
Suarez says that sends the wrong message. Beyond what it means for Simmons personally, Suarez says it affects the ability of prosecutors to get future defendants to play ball.
“[A prosecutor] needs to show that if you cooperate with the government, there’s going to be a real benefit. Unfortunately, that’s not been demonstrated in this case.”
“The problem for the future is whether people perceive: Is it worth it? Why bother? I may as well go to trial and take my chances.”
First Coast News reached out to prosecutors and the judge for comment, but federal offices are closed for the Martin Luther King Day observance.
Despite his unhappiness with the sentence, Suarez says he believes the judge was fair.
“I cannot say I didn’t get a fair shake from the judge,” he says. “He was very professional and kind. I just think he made the wrong decision.”