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Jurors may need Lyons to speak for himself

By HOWARD TROXLER

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 12, 1999


T

A Ministry in Question: more Times coverage of the Rev. Henry Lyons


he Rev. Henry J. Lyons is getting his turn at bat. His lawyers have spent the past two days mounting their defense against the state charges of racketeering and grand theft. They will take until next week.

When you walk into Judge Susan Schaeffer's courtroom, you get a little bit of the thrill of a celebrity-sighting. Not so much for Lyons, really, but for his co-defendant, Bernice Edwards, the mystery woman.

She does not much look like her pictures in the newspapers or on television. She has not photographed well. To be blunt about it, a lot of people have made unkind comments about why a man would have an affair with her.

In person she looks thinner, strong, not un-handsome, and I saw her break into a charming smile out in the hallway. On Wednesday, she was dressed all in white; on Thursday, all in black.

The prosecution's table, on the right side of the courtroom closest to the jury, is surrounded by neatly stacked white posters. There are dozens of these, blow-ups of letters and financial documents of the National Baptist Convention USA, of which Lyons is president.

The defense table is actually two tables shoved into an L-shape. Lyons sits at the corner of this L, his three lawyers to his right, his financial expert to his left around the corner. Beyond that sits Edwards and then her lawyer. The defense sits amid boxes, files, notebooks and a laptop but no neatly printed posters. The defense lawyers draw impromptu charts with magic markers.

Judge Susan Schaeffer listens to prosecutor Bob Lewis question Roscoe D. Cooper, secretary general of the National Baptist Convention, on Thursday. [Times photo: Brian Baer]
The undisputed ruler of this universe is Schaeffer, the judge, a onetime contender for the Florida Supreme Court. Given the choice between colliding with her or a Mack truck, you should choose the truck.

She is impatient with the lawyers and jumps in with her own objections. When one witness got too speechy, she turned and laid down the law: "He asks a question. You answer it." And on Thursday, she interrupted the state's repetitive cross-examination with a growling order: "Have something new, or sit down." The prosecutor repeated himself yet again, and she sat him right down.

As for the merits of the defense It is not clear, from the first two days of Lyons' defense, what the strategy is. Of course, it is not fair to judge before the cake is baked. Maybe they will tie it all up brilliantly at the end.

But so far it boils down to:

As president of the National Baptist Convention, Lyons had wide authority to do as he pleased. Even making deals for his personal profit did not violate convention rules.

As for money from the Anti-Defamation League, intended for burned-down churches, which Lyons is accused of stealing: It just took a long time to get the process rolling.

To the first point, a relevant question might be: So? It does not matter whether Lyons' authority was wide or narrow. What matters is whether what he did violated the law.

As for the second point: No matter how long things were delayed, a letter over Lyons' signature, dated November 1996, claimed the ADL's money already had been distributed to six burned churches. That just wasn't true.

The letter is damning and must be answered. Lyons' lawyers on Thursday called his secretary, Deborah Blake, to the stand. In November 1996, wasn't she brand new? Wasn't it a confusing environment? Wasn't she operating without proofreading and double-checking?

Their questions suggest that the defense will claim the November 1996 letter was mistakenly sent. That would be quite a thing to ask the jury to swallow, but they have to try something.

Lyons is going to need more of a defense than just saying, what he did was okay by the NBC or that, gosh darn it, we're sorry it took so long to hand out that money. It may come down to Lyons taking the stand and looking the jury square in the eye.

The Constitution does not require Henry Lyons to testify. The jury might.

 

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