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First jury candidates offer glimpse of reality

On the first day of selection, Judge Susan Schaeffer finds potential jurors don't know much about the case.

As lawyers confer with Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Susan Schaeffer, the Rev. Henry J. Lyons sits in court. [Times photos: Brian Baer]

By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 12, 1999


LARGO -- They did not appear to exchange a word all day and hardly glanced at each other.

Prosecutors say Baptist leader Henry J. Lyons and former aide Bernice Edwards were once partners in a scheme to steal millions of dollars by using the good name of the National Baptist Convention USA.

Together they shared the love of a lavish lifestyle, from a $700,000 Tierra Verde home to a time-share condominium in Lake Tahoe.

Lyons' former aide, Bernice Edwards, with her attorney Paul Sisco, had wanted the case moved.
On Monday, they awkwardly sat 10 feet apart as their attorneys began selecting something Lyons and Edwards will share in a Pinellas County courtroom: a jury of their peers.

Their state racketeering trial began with the tedium of finding six unbiased jurors and three alternates, a task some people expected to prove difficult because of publicity surrounding the case.

But before the first day of jury selection was finished, Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Susan Schaeffer arrived at a familiar truth for many high-profile criminal cases:

Potential jurors simply don't remember much of what they read in the newspaper or see on the nightly news -- if they see the news at all.

As Schaeffer began questioning potential jurors to see how much they knew of the case against Lyons and Edwards, five out of the first nine people questioned knew little or nothing of it.

"I think as I have always thought with these high-profile cases, we worry much more than we need to," the judge said.

Jury selection is expected to last through the week.

Schaeffer said she will recess the court next week and scheduled opening arguments for Jan. 25.

She ruled out any possibility the case would be moved outside the Tampa Bay area, as requested by Edwards, a 42-year-old Milwaukee resident.

One by one, Schaeffer and attorneys for Lyons, the 56-year-old president of the Baptist convention, questioned potential jurors. By day's end, Schaeffer had excused six out of a group of 20.

And some of those six were excused not because of publicity, but because they said they could not bear the hardship of a monthlong trial.

While many subscribed to a newspaper, just a few remembered significant detail about the case.

"I glance at the headlines and then move on," one man said.

One woman explained that she did have a newspaper subscription but hardly read the articles.

"I'll do the crossword puzzle and read the funnies," she said.

Potential jurors who had knowledge of the case were asked if they had formed an opinion about Lyons' and Edwards' guilt or innocence.

If they hadn't, they made the cut for further questioning this week. If they had, they still made the cut if they said they could set that opinion aside and base their verdict on the evidence.

Some said they thought local newspapers, including the Times, were out to get Lyons.

"There was so much coverage, it was overwhelming," one woman said.

Reporters and photographers staked out the entrance to the courthouse at 7 a.m. to await the arrival of Lyons and Edwards, who was fired by Lyons as the public relations director for the convention shortly after the scandal broke.

Edwards arrived about 7:30, refusing to answer reporters' questions.

Less than an hour later, Lyons and his wife, Deborah, walked into the building. They appeared mildly startled as they set off courthouse metal detectors.

Mrs. Lyons smiled as sheriff's deputies conducted a routine scan for weapons.

Lyons also declined to talk with reporters, except to say, "I feel good."

 

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