Slip lets jurors hear Edwards embezzled
An annoyed judge tells the lawyer for a former aide to the Rev. Henry J. Lyons that his own question opened the door to a fact that until now was kept from the jury in the state racketeering case.
By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 23, 1999
LARGO -- After 24 days of trial, dozens of witnesses and hundreds of exhibits, jurors learned something about Bernice Edwards on Monday that had been kept carefully from their ears:
In Edwards' third day on the stand in her state racketeering trial, a circuit judge allowed prosecutors to ask her about the conviction after saying that Edwards' own lawyer inadvertently "opened the door."
Last week, Edwards' lawyer, Paul Sisco, without using the word embezzlement, asked his client if she had been convicted of a 1993 felony and of a 1980 misdemeanor petty theft.
The judge said Sisco is not free to identify one crime, the petty theft, without also identifying the second. It was an apparent tactical error, one that Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Susan Schaeffer said allowed prosecutors to question Edwards about the embezzlement.
Until then, prosecutors had been allowed to tell jurors only that Edwards served probation on an unnamed charge, a decision by Schaeffer to help ensure Edwards gets a fair trial.
"It's just so annoying," Schaeffer told Sisco on Friday, before ruling Monday. "If you had just said, "Have you been convicted of a misdemeanor?' we wouldn't be here. . . . You just can't pick and choose the crimes you tell a jury about."
Assistant State Attorney Bill Loughery was quick to put the question to Edwards: Wasn't she convicted of a federal embezzlement charge in Milwaukee?
"That is correct," Edwards answered, her voice a whisper.
Edwards was convicted of stealing $32,000 in federal funds from a school for at-risk teens in Milwaukee, details jurors did not hear.
At the end of the day, Sisco declined to comment, except to say Edwards' testimony "brought no surprises."
Jury deliberations in the racketeering trial of the Rev. Henry J. Lyons, president of the National Baptist Convention USA, and Edwards, his former aide, could begin as early as Thursday with closing arguments, which could last two days, expected to begin today.
Prosecutors accuse the pair of using the convention's good name to swindle millions of dollars from corporations eager to tap into the NBC's supposed 8.5-million members. Prosecutors say Lyons and Edwards used the cash to fund a life of luxury.
By lunch Monday, Edwards had finished nearly 10 hours of testimony over three days. She never retreated from testimony that she earned the more than $1-million she received while serving as the convention's public relation's director.
Loughery asked her why, if her earnings were legitimate, she never reported the income to her Milwaukee probation officer.
"I don't know," she said. "I don't know what my thoughts were back then."
In fact, Loughery said, Edwards knew it was illegal money.
"The money was not illegal," she said. "The money was earned."
Edwards reminded Loughery that she "successfully" completed three years of federal probation in January 1997 and said, "I never hid anything."
Loughery told her, "You completed it successfully because you lied to your probation officer."
"Am I on trial for violating my probation, is that what you're saying?" Edwards asked.
Edwards said she regreted her criminal past. "Yes, I'm sorry for a mistake made over seven years ago. But I'll share this: I worked for my money. I earned my money. And I spent it as I saw fit."
On at least that point Edwards and prosecutors agree: Edwards spent as she saw fit hundreds of thousands of dollars on jewelry, lavish clothing, luxury homes.
Said Edwards, "It was my money."