By MIKE BRASSFIELD
© St. Petersburg Times, published October 23, 1999
After years of being dogged by criminal charges, Bernice Edwards finally has Justice.
That's the name Edwards gave to her 11-week-old son. On Friday, lawyers for the former National Baptist Convention USA official argued in court papers that the precarious health of her infant and various problems her three older children have should keep her out of prison.
Edwards was acquitted in state court of helping Baptist leader Henry J. Lyons swindle millions of dollars from corporations. But she pleaded guilty to a federal charge of tax evasion in a deal that could send her to prison.
She is to be sentenced Monday. A federal judge has the leeway to impose a sentence ranging from probation to more than a year in prison.
Edwards, a single mother, will ask for probation or house arrest so she can care for her children.
Her youngest, the boy she named Justice Edwards, was born in Edwards' hometown of Milwaukee on Aug. 4, about six weeks premature. His birth certificate does not list the father.
Edwards answered the front door of her Milwaukee home Friday morning wearing silk-like pajamas and referred questions to her lawyers.
After her guilty plea in March, her attorney David T. Weisbrod of Tampa calculated a possible prison sentence for Edwards ranging from 15 to 30 months.
Weisbrod adjusted that to 12 to 18 months in a memo filed Wednesday in federal court in Tampa. He also argued that Edwards should be allowed to stay home to deal with her children's medical and emotional problems:
Justice, the premature infant, isn't taking formula and must be breast fed. He wears an apnea monitor to warn if he stops breathing.
Joshua, 12, is hyperactive and has low self-esteem.
Jessie, 14, has asthma and emotional issues.
Jessica, 18, has academic problems after caring for her brothers while her mother fought state and federal charges in Florida.
The father of Edwards' three older children died of cancer in mid-1996. The court papers do not name Justice's father, but note that he is helping Edwards.
"While the baby's father contributes financially when able to do so, it is clear from the family circumstances that this child is wholly dependent upon the defendant on a day-to-day basis," Weisbrod's court memo says.
When Edwards pleaded guilty to two counts of tax evasion in March, she was between two and three months pregnant, a fact not publicly disclosed.
The toughest part of pleading guilty for Edwards was her children, Weisbrod said at the time. "It's very difficult for her to consider the possibility she would have to go to prison and be without her children and not be there to give them guidance."
Edwards' guilty plea on the federal charges came a month after a jury acquitted her on state racketeering charges.
The same jury convicted the Rev. Lyons, then-president of the National Baptist Convention USA, now serving 51/2 years in prison.
Edwards, a convicted embezzler with four bankruptcies and six aliases, had been hired by Lyons to handle the convention's public relations.
Over time, the two shared ownership of a $700,000 Tierra Verde house, a Lake Tahoe time-share, a Rolls Royce, jewelry and a $135,000 Mercedes-Benz.
Edwards sometimes posed as Lyons' wife. His real wife suspected Lyons of having an affair with Edwards, but the two denied it.
In her guilty plea, Edwards admitted she failed to report more than $500,000 of income from the convention in 1995 and 1996.
That money propelled Edwards on a shopping streak in which she bought a $1,250 Escada jacket, a 20-carat princess-cut diamond and the Mercedes. In court, she described herself during that time as "a little kid in a candy store."
The Internal Revenue Service figures she owes taxes totaling $194,447, although Edwards disputes that figure. Her attorneys are trying to negotiate a smaller amount because it may affect her sentence.
Edwards was on probation in Milwaukee after a 1994 embezzlement conviction.
She gave a 1995 income tax return to her probation officer but never filed it with the IRS, in part because it didn't disclose her convention income.
Nor did she disclose to the probation officer her many purchases in excess of $500, as she was required to do.
-- The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel contributed to this report.