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As the case is closed, lawyers say their piece

By HOWARD TROXLER

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 26, 1999


The final arguments in the racketeering trial of Henry J. Lyons and Bernice Edwards ranged from tiresome to impressive, for both prosecution and defense. But not only did the defendants get their day in court, they probably got as strong a case as could have been made.

After the jury went out Thursday, the judge praised all the lawyers. Then she addressed Lyons and Edwards directly, telling them they should be proud of their attorneys. Both nodded.

The gist of the charges against Lyons, the president of the National Baptist Convention USA, and Edwards, Lyons' public-relations director, is that they cheated big corporations into giving them millions, supposedly for the chance to do business with the convention's members.

Grady C. Irvin Jr., Lyons' lead attorney (wrapping up his first criminal trial, creditably enough) opened the defense side. He probably did not score many points with his depiction of the case as "corporate giants and the little preacher." Lyons is no "little preacher."

But Irvin did effectively set out a key theme, that these big corporations were not exactly kidnapped and forced to give Lyons money. They were driven by greed, hoping to cash in on the dollars of Lyons' followers:

"They just kept coming back," Irvin argued. "Not for prayer. For profit. For access. Thank you for opening the gate and letting us in."

As sort of a bonus argument, Irvin threw in the separation of church and state, accusing the state of telling black churches "how to run their organization." This might have been more relevant had the state named the NBC as a victim, but it didn't.

The second Lyons lawyer to argue, Denis de Vlaming, is one of Pinellas' best. But he made an awkward stretch of an argument about reasonable doubt. It dealt with whether, during the Tylenol-poisoning scare, a parent would have given that drug to a child. The state kept bringing up Tylenol somewhat scornfully the rest of the way.

Maybe the tightest defense argument came from Paul Sisco, a young ex-prosecutor defending Edwards. His work was cut out: She was a most unsympathetic character on the stand.

But, Sisco argued, "She's not on trial for jewelry. She's not on trial for cars. She's not on trial for the Tierra Verde home." Sisco carefully spelled out the specific acts alleged against Edwards, doing his best to neutralize her bad PR.

From the state's side, some of the least useful argument was prosecutor Jim Hellickson's grab for catchy lines on Tuesday: "Bonnie and Clyde," "Their creed was greed." Otherwise dull.

Much better stuff came Thursday when prosecutor Bill Loughery began the rebuttal of the defense arguments. He set out to knock them down, one by one, as if hammering a line of finishing nails into a cabinet.

"The defense does not want you to pay attention to the evidence," Loughery said. But there was too much proof that Lyons and Edwards had specifically peddled a list of NBC members, when no such list existed.

He exhibited a state-by-state list of "estimated" convention membership. In some states, there was a claim of more black Baptists than a state's entire black population. The effect was comic.

In the end, three pieces of paper were the state's deadliest weapons. Two of them were letters from Lyons to the Anti-Defamation League, falsely claiming that money intended for burned black churches had been distributed.

The third was a fax from Edwards and Lyons to a corporate victim, in which they still were claiming, as late as April 1997, the bogus membership estimate of 8.5-million.

It was a hard piece of paper to ignore. Loughery projected it onto the three large screens around the courtroom. At the defense table, Lyons turned in his chair so he could see the screen over his left shoulder. He stared at it for a long time.

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