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Lyons' lawyers want judge
to clear path for testimony

Circuit Judge Susan Schaeffer will rule later on whether prosecutors must stick to issues brought up by the defense.


© St. Petersburg Times, published February 17, 1999

LARGO -- It's one of the most critical decisions any criminal defendant faces -- to testify or not to testify.

It's a defendant's chance to directly proclaim innocence to a jury. But that often comes at a price: a withering and damaging cross-examination by prosecutors.

Denis de Vlaming argues Tuesday for limiting Henry Lyons' testimony as Lyons (left) and other counsel listen. [Times photo: Brian Baer]
It's a decision that Baptist leader Henry J. Lyons is now weighing.

His lawyers asked a judge Tuesday to give them the best of two worlds: allow Lyons to testify about certain elements of the charges against him while limiting the questions prosecutors ask.

If he does testify, defense lawyers said they will question Lyons about just a few elements of the state's grand theft and racketeering case against him.

By limiting their own questioning of Lyons during a direct examination, lawyer Denis de Vlaming said, prosecutors would not be free to cross-examine the minister about anything outside the scope of that testimony.

"We need to get an advance ruling from the judge so we can properly advise our client" about testifying, de Vlaming said in an interview.

Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Susan Schaeffer indicated she may be reluctant to limit prosecutors' questioning. She said she denied a similar request during the triple-murder trial of Oba Chandler, who was convicted in 1994. Schaeffer said an appeals court affirmed her ruling.

In any case, Schaeffer said, once Lyons takes the stand, he may inadvertently testify about things his attorneys want to avoid, allowing prosecutors to question him extensively.

"Part of me says I would be kind of foolish making a ruling in advance," said the judge, who did not immediately rule. "There's no way in the world for me to determine in advance ... he is not going to open doors to a lot of things."

But de Vlaming said he would be careful not to lead Lyons astray during questioning. "I would not use a shotgun," he told the judge. "I would use a rifle."

De Vlaming did not say what areas of the state's case against Lyons he wanted to avoid, though he suggested he might question Lyons about his client's alleged theft of money from the Anti-Defamation League.

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

Prosecutors say Lyons, president of the National Baptist Convention USA, pocketed most of $244,500 the ADL gave Lyons in 1996 to distribute to burned black churches.

If Lyons testifies, it probably will happen by Friday. A lawyer for co-defendant Bernice Edwards, who also faces a racketeering charge, has not said whether she would testify.

The convention's first vice-president testified Tuesday about the NBC's efforts to sell funeral plots to its members in partnership with the Loewen Group, the world's second-largest funeral company.

John Chaplin said the convention made a vigorous effort to make the business deal work and said an affiliate company of sales counselors formed by the NBC in 1995 to market Loewen products actually posted $1.3-million in sales.

"I personally feel we went overboard (promoting the deal) because we knew this would be good for our community," Chaplin said.

Prosecutors say Loewen was Lyons' and Edwards' largest corporate victim, losing more than $3-million. Defense lawyers say it was a legitimate business deal that didn't work, but not a criminal scheme.

Chaplin said the partnership with Loewen became strained, in part, because the company pushed for a detailed accounting of expenses claimed by the affiliate company.

When Assistant State Attorney Bill Loughery asked whether it was improper for Loewen to demand an accounting of how its money was spent, Chaplin said, "If they had set it up that way from the beginning, I don't think it's unreasonable."

Chaplin's testimony was often rambling and non-responsive to the questions he was asked. Several times, the judge admonished the Washington, D.C., pastor, telling him to keep on track.

Schaeffer later scolded lawyers for failing to better control witnesses.

"This is not a church," the judge said. "This is not a place for preaching."


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