Defense: no victims, no crimes
By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 25, 1999
As the state racketeering trial of Baptist leader Henry J. Lyons and his former aide Bernice Edwards nears its end, defense attorneys reminded jurors Wednesday that no corporation the pair is accused of swindling ever reported a crime.
"They didn't pick up the phone and call State Attorney Bernie McCabe and say, "I've been robbed,' " attorney Grady Irvin said during the defense's closing argument.
It was only in July 1997, when Lyons' wife set fire to a $700,000 Tierra Verde house the minister had bought with Edwards, that state investigators began questioning corporate executives who entered into partnerships with Lyons and his National Baptist Convention USA.
They didn't report a crime, Irvin said, because no crime occurred.
Closing arguments in the 5-week-old trial of Lyons, the convention president, and Edwards, its former director of public relations, will conclude today, with the jury expected to begin deliberations by early afternoon.
The day began sadly for Lyons when he learned that his step-grandmother, Minnie Lyons, 81, who helped raise him as a teenager, died of natural causes early Wednesday in Gainesville. Lyons, 57, didn't get the news until arriving at court.
His family hadn't been able to reach him. A daughter told Edwards, and when Lyons came to court, his co-defendant broke the news.
With a verdict perhaps less than a day away, the largest media contingent of the trial descended on the courthouse. As Lyons and his wife walked outside at day's end, eight television crews lined up for a brief news conference.
The case against Lyons, his attorneys say, is about the freedom of the convention to conduct its business as it sees fit.
The NBC's freedom of religion is at stake, they say.
"The next thing you know, are they going to be writing our sermons, telling us when to pray, when to get on our knees . . . and when to get back up?" Irvin asked jurors as he pointed to prosecutors. "It's not up to these prosecutors . . . to tell these people how to run their organization."
Irvin and defense attorney Denis de Vlaming decribed a convention that doesn't operate like the giants of business. The president runs the convention out of his briefcase, paying bills from whatever convention account has the money.
Irvin portrayed greedy corporations, eager to tap into the convention's supposed 8.5-million members, taking advantage of "the little preacher."
Corporations such as the Globe Accident and Life Insurance Co. or the Loewen group, the world's second-largest funeral company, entered into deals with eyes open, well able to protect themselves, de Vlaming said.
Sometimes, he said, a business deal goes bad, though that is not grounds for a criminal charge.
"If there's a beef between a business and a private person, you take it to civil court," de Vlaming said.
Said Irvin: "The case really should be about corporate deals that didn't work out. Not enough profit was made by the corporations. But nobody held a gun to their head."
Along with racketeering, Lyons faces two charges of grand theft relating to nearly $250,000 prosecutors say he stole from the Anti-Defamation League, which gave the money to Lyons to distribute to burned black churches.
De Vlaming said Lyons was investigating which churches were truly in need when the ADL demanded its money back after news reports that little money had been distributed.
A letter Lyons sent to the ADL confirming that money had been disbursed was mailed in error by an inexperienced secretary who didn't realize the letter was a draft, the lawyer said.
Lyons gave the money back to the ADL as soon as it asked for it. "Did he steal it? No," de Vlaming said.
Prosecutors say Lyons and Edwards sold bogus NBC membership lists to companies and gathered more than $4-million to finance a lavish life.
Defense attorneys say prosecutors are trying to anger jurors with details of that lifestyle of jewels, expensive clothing and illicit affairs to help win a conviction. Irvin called prosecutors the "moral police."
"The government has no business getting involved in moral issues," de Vlaming said.
Edwards' attorney, Paul Sisco, said his client might have purchased some things she now wishes she hadn't. But she earned the money, deserved it "and is not and was not a racketeer."