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Lyons' lawyers working to reduce minister's prison term

By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 5, 1999


LARGO -- Lawyers for Baptist leader Henry J. Lyons are working on two fronts to shave up to a year off his 5 1/2-year prison sentence.

The St. Petersburg minister, former president of the National Baptist Convention USA, was convicted in a Pinellas courtroom this year of racketeering and grand theft and began serving his sentence March 31 at a prison near Ocala.

But one of Lyons' state lawyers said that prison sentence may be whittled down.

The most-promising possibility, said Lyons' Clearwater lawyer Denis de Vlaming, is convincing the state that Lyons' 36-month sentence under his racketeering conviction should he served under older, more liberal prison rules giving inmates time off for good behavior.

Anyone convicted of a crime committed after Oct. 1, 1995, must serve at least 85 percent of their sentence. Formerly, inmates enjoyed much more generous gain time that could sometimes cut sentences in half -- until state lawmakers changed the rules.

But de Vlaming said one of the criminal acts that comprised Lyons' racketeering conviction occurred before the deadline, namely Lyons' efforts to fleece Union Planters Bank. Lyons was accused of pocketing a $300,000 loan from the bank, which wanted to market credit cards to convention members.

Although the racketeering charge also included other criminal acts occurring after the deadline, de Vlaming said, that one 1994 crime should be enough to allow Lyons to enjoy the more liberal gain time rules.

Lyons' lawyers recently filed a formal grievance with the state Department of Corrections, asking that Lyons he allowed to serve his time under the old rules.

So far, DOC officials disagree. A final decision is expected soon. If DOC rejects the bid, de Vlaming said, a circuit judge will be asked to decide the issue.

"Frankly, the Department of Corrections rarely grants these requests," de Vlaming said.

Neither prosecutors nor the DOC could immediately be reached for comment.

A second effort to reduce Lyons' sentence is outlined in a motion filed this week.

Lyons' lawyers say he was sentenced using state guidelines that under Florida's Constitution are illegal. They ask a circuit judge to resentence Lyons under older guidelines that would cut his sentence by as much as a year.

Under Florida's Constitution, every state law must "embrace but one subject." Vastly different subjects -- such as rules prohibiting animal cruelty and rules governing license provisions for boaters -- may not be enacted under the same law.

The Constitution "requires that there be a logical or natural connection between the various portions of a legislative enactment," the motion said. The prohibition is designed, in part, to keep lawmakers from hiding one law within another and to prevent confusion.

Lyons was sentenced under the Crime Control Act of 1995, which also contains provisions relating to non-criminal domestic issues.

Lyons' motion said that is unconstitutional.

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