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First task in Lyons case: find six jurors

Pretrial publicity raises questions of how easy will it be to find impartial jurors to judge the NBC president.

By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 10, 1999


It began with a fire at a $700,000 Tierra Verde home set by a preacher's wife convinced that her husband, a man with the president's ear and a nation of Baptists to lead, was cheating on her.

What followed was a conflagration that the Rev. Henry J. Lyons might never have foreseen: 18 months of newspaper revelations detailing millions of dollars funneled to secret bank accounts and a lavish lifestyle unbefitting the modest means of a minister.

Beginning Monday, Lyons finally gets the one thing he has steadfastly said he wants: his day in court.

The racketeering trial of Lyons, president of the National Baptist Convention USA, and his co-defendant and former aide Bernice Edwards opens with what could become an arduous task of selecting six jurors to decide a case that has saturated the local media since the July 6, 1997, Tierra Verde fire.

After hundreds of newspaper stories, nightly television reports detailing accusations of dishonesty and deceit and even a song parody on the radio calling them criminals in the bluntest words, one question will ring clear: Can Lyons and Edwards find six fair and impartial jurors in Pinellas County?

One possible answer, a humbling one for reporters, was provided by Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Susan Schaeffer during a hearing last year.

"It always surprises me in high-profile cases how many folks don't seem to like the St. Petersburg Times, the Tampa Tribune or just don't watch TV," said the judge, who is presiding over the Lyons trial.

Some warn that it won't be as simple as that. Even Schaeffer has left open the possibility she will order the trial moved outside the Tampa Bay area if picking jurors proves problematic in the trial's opening days.

Edwards has asked for a venue change, Lyons has not.

Jury selection -- called voir dire in the lexicon of the lawyer -- is always an integral part of any criminal trial. But this isn't any case. This is a trial that will undoubtedly weave across a rocky landscape of race, religion, sex and the press.

It's a case that defense attorneys say is about more than just the alleged misdeeds of a Baptist leader.

"It's not only Rev. Lyons on trial. But the black church is on trial," said Sundria Lake, the newest member of Lyons' defense team and a lifelong member of National Baptist Convention churches. "And that's going to be made apparent early on. This case is much bigger than Rev. Lyons."

Lyons' attorneys have been silent on their legal strategy, but that might prove to be a linchpin of the defense: A portrait of religious freedom under siege by the press, by prosecutors, by the greed of white corporations chasing the black Baptist dollar.

Prosecutors, however, appear to have some daunting evidence. The heart of their case rests largely on bank records that portray a minister, often with Edwards' help, using the good name of the Baptist convention to steal millions of dollars.

The most-important relationship Lyons, 56, and Edwards, 42, of Milwaukee, must explain in court is their partnership with the Loewen Group, the world's second-largest funeral company. Loewen, with Lyons' help, wanted to market funeral plots to black Baptists.

Of all the corporations Lyons and Edwards are accused of defrauding, Loewen lost the most. In all, the company spent $3.2-million.

Banking records show Lyons submitted phony expense reports to the company and diverted the return to himself, Edwards, his friends, family, church and convention. With the money, Lyons and Edwards embraced a lifestyle that included luxurious homes, jewelry and expensive cars.

The image of burned, southern churches also casts a cloud over the defense -- and provides the basis for two grand theft charges that Lyons faces alone.

In 1996, the Anti-Defamation League gave Lyons $244,500 to rebuild burned black churches. Instead, prosecutors say, Lyons pocketed most of the money. He returned it after news reports showed much of it had been diverted.

"The church is in a state of wonderment. Are the allegations true? Are the allegations false?" said the Rev. Jasper Williams of Atlanta, a Lyons' critic and candidate for the NBC presidency this year. "The church has been hurt tremendously. We want closure finally. A trial brings that."

The task begins with the selection of six jurors and three alternates -- nine Pinellas residents who must swear to decide the defendants' fate based on one thing -- evidence presented at trial.

Can they?

"I cannot fathom how they can select a fair and impartial jury in this case given the extensive publicity," said Clearwater criminal defense lawyer John Trevena. "I was amazed the judge didn't grant a change of venue. She has created a major appellate issue before the trial even begins."

Court administrators are preparing for the worst. They expect to summon at least 100 potential jurors for the trial, four or five times the number usually called for a case that does not involve a murder. Conceivably, many more could follow that first 100.

Jury consultants say it might be difficult, but far from an impossible task to seat a jury in a well-publicized case, even one that touches upon race and religion.

Harvey Moore of Trial Practices in Tampa said it might even be beneficial to have the trial in Pinellas. He said jurors, aware of the case, are more apt to speak freely, allowing lawyers to root out bias.

"If they have an opinion," he said, "they will be much more likely to express it."

It is a fiction that anyone who knows details of a case because of news reports is ineligible as a juror. In fact, even those who have formed an opinion about someone's guilt or innocence are eligible, by law, to serve.

What is more important is this: Having seen news coverage and having formed an opinion, can they set that aside and base a verdict on the evidence presented at trial?

Joseph A. Rice, a jury consultant who helped pick a jury in the O.J. Simpson civil trial on behalf of the plaintiffs, knows a thing or two about pretrial publicity. He avoids uninformed jurors.

"The ones who know nothing are dangerous," he said. "They're so disconnected from the community, they can't be representative of it. The goal is to find someone who, regardless of what they know, they can put it aside."

Some, of course, won't be able to put aside bias, though they might not admit to any.

Rice said it is important for lawyers to ask potential jurors open-ended questions, to enter into a dialogue.

"Ask them what they remember of the case from the newspaper or the TV broadcast," he said. "Those details count. For O.J.'s civil trial, if a potential juror remembered 99 percent of what Johnnie Cochran said in the criminal trial, that was a good juror for the defense."

Or, maybe not -- a civil jury found Simpson responsible for the deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman.

Jury selection, after all, can be an inexact science.

To aid voir dire, defendants can spend tens of thousands of dollars conducting surveys, polling, focus groups and mock trials to judge the attitudes and influences a case has upon a community.

Lyons' lead attorney has said a jury consultant is working for the Baptist leader, but it is unclear how much the financially strapped minister can pay for such services.

Judge Schaeffer has predicted jury selection might take as much as a week.

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