Attorneys select jury for trial of Lyons, Edwards
By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 15, 1999
LARGO -- Race and the politics of the black church have often been at the forefront of the scandal surrounding Baptist leader Henry J. Lyons and his former aide Bernice Edwards.
Defense lawyers and prosecutors picked an all-white jury of five women and one man, ending four days of jury selection in which 100 prospective jurors were asked about their views on everything from adultery to government interference with the church.
Defense lawyers praised the jury and did not hint at their earlier displeasure about the lack of diversity in the jury pool. Of 100 jurors questioned this week, just two were African-American.
Lyons' attorneys immediately withdrew a motion asking that the case be moved outside Pinellas County because of intense pretrial publicity.
"Dr. Lyons has always wanted to try this case in his community," defense attorney Denis de Vlaming said. "We're very pleased with the jury we've got. We think they're intelligent and are going to be fair."
Opening arguments are scheduled for Jan. 25.
If some expected a difficult job finding six unbiased jurors after days of intense questioning, things moved easily once lawyers got down to the task. Neither the defense nor prosecution used all their peremptory strikes, which allow them to automatically disqualify a juror without providing a reason to the court.
A jury -- and one male and three female alternates, also all white -- was selected before lawyers reached the lone African-American remaining in the pool.
The youngest member of the jury is 22, the oldest 53. The panel includes a public schoolteacher, a sales clerk, a self-employed lawn man and a woman who takes claims for an insurance company. Two are married, three are single and one is a widower.
One female juror once attended services at a black Baptist church. Another said she subscribed to the newspaper but had read little of accusations that Lyons, 56, and Edwards, 42, of Milwaukee, stole millions of dollars from corporations by using the good name of the National Baptist Convention USA.
Lyons is the convention's president.
One woman on the panel, asked by de Vlaming if she thinks defendants have too many rights, shook her head vigorously and said, "You can't make a mistake."
One person not selected was Henry Steinbrenner, son of New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner. Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Susan Schaeffer excused him from service after WFLA-Ch. 8 identified him in a news report as a potential juror.
That angered the judge, who had asked reporters not to identify potential jurors unless they were excused from service.
Steinbrenner, 41, a horse breeder, said he wanted to protect his family's privacy and told the judge, "even my father is toning it down."
After Schaeffer apologized to him, he said, "It should probably be a law that high-profile people not serve as jurors on high-profile cases."
The last day of jury selection provided the clearest glimpse yet at elements of Lyons' and Edwards' defense.
De Vlaming, for instance, asked one man who owned his own company about a business concept called due diligence.
"If big business enters into a big contract, they better check it out," de Vlaming said, explaining the term's meaning.
Lyons and Edwards entered into several deals with large corporations that wanted to tap into the convention's purported 8.5-million members to sell everything from life insurance to funeral plots.
But Lyons' boast of the convention's membership was false, prosecutors say; the convention had fewer than 1-million members.
De Vlaming questioned jurors on whether they thought government should be involved in the affairs of the church. He also asked potential jurors whether they thought it improper for a religious leader to receive payment for a "celebrity endorsement."
That may be a defense at trial: that corporations paid Lyons for his endorsement, not for mailing lists or anything else.
De Vlaming even referred to the retirement of basketball star Michael Jordan, who earns $47-million a year in endorsement deals. Is it fair for anyone to get big bucks for just the use of their name and image, the lawyer asked.
A woman who was eventually selected for the jury said, "if that's what the market bears, have at it."