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In telling her side, Edwards says it all

By HOWARD TROXLER

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 20, 1999


The good news for Bernice Edwards, a/k/a Bree Jones, a/k/a Bernice Jones, is that she didn't do an awful job Friday of finishing up her side of the story.

She got her say. She got to tell the jury that she and the Rev. Henry J. Lyons, the president of the National Baptist Convention Inc., are not crooks.

She was paid a lot of money, "absolutely." Yes, she bought nice things for herself with that cash. She called herself "a kid in a candy store."

But racketeering? No way. If anything, the corporations that she and Lyons are accused of swindling were the bad guys.

The bad news for Bernice Edwards, a/k/a Bree Jones, a/k/a Bernice Jones, is that then the state of Florida got to cross-examine her. What followed no longer resembled testimony as much as it did attempted suicide.

What kind of impression does the jury get when a witness evades the very first question -- her preferred name?

"Whatever you decide on," Edwards/Jones answered. Things went downhill from there. Her memory, laser-precise on her direct testimony, evaporated, giving way to "If that's what you say" and "It could have been."

Edwards had been on parole for embezzlement -- forbidden to have her own checking accounts or to handle money in her work. She was required to report her income and major purchases. Yet she had a friend open an account and moved hundreds of thousands through it, including buying a car and lavish jewelry for herself. She reported only her $40,000 salary.

Yet she steadfastly refused to admit it was a parole violation. "Not to my understanding," she insisted, Clintonlike. "I did not open the account."

Prosecutor Bill Loughery asked Edwards if she had a good memory. "I think I do," she answered. This was a setup, because he then asked why she had trouble remembering her Social Security number. Prosecutors produced a chart showing at least six occasions on when she used different numbers.

Edwards tried to explain that she had not gotten a Social Security card until 1996. Didn't she have a number before then? Well, yes. "It could have been," she tried again, "when I went into the bank, I did not remember the correct number."

Loughery then went down to another bank account with yet another Social Security number. Another mistake?

"That's what I'm saying," she said.

The tougher the question, the quieter she got. Asked whether she reported her earnings on her taxes, she murmured, "I don't know." Her lawyer asked the judge to have her speak up.

Edwards strongly denied having a romantic affair with Lyons. Incredulous, Loughery led her through a catalog of their trips and purchases: a time-share in Lake Tahoe, two trips to Hawaii, Nassau, the famous house in their names in Tierra Verde (the one with Lyons listed as a single man), a $10,000 check signed by Lyons for her diamond ring, even one of their bar tabs. The trips were for business, Edwards insisted over and over. Asked about Nassau, she replied, "Definitely for business reasons." What did she do there? "Same work I generally do when I travel," she answered. Loughery kept trying, but the best he got was, "I don't recall the specifics." As for why she once told visitors who knocked on her hotel door at night that Lyons was inside with her, she replied she was just trying to get rid of them.

If there is a straw to grasp for Edwards, it is that she is not charged with lying. She is charged with racketeering. The state has to prove at least two out of eight specific allegations against her.

But Edwards' performance only proved Lyons was doubly wise in deciding not to testify himself. He could not have shared that witness chair with her without it rubbing off on him the wrong way. For a man who has made his entire world with his voice, to sit mute now must be the challenge of his life.

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