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Lyons' backers pray as jury begins work

With testimony done, Mrs. Lyons and Bernice Edwards come face to face, while supporters offer their prayers.

Deborah Lyons, left, embraces Bernice Edwards on Thursday, just after the jury began deliberations in the racketeering trial. [Times photo: Jim Damaske]

By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 26, 1999


LARGO -- Deborah Lyons stood before the woman who two years ago set her off in a jealous rage by buying a plush, waterfront home with her husband, Baptist leader Henry J. Lyons.


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


Minutes before, a jury had begun deliberations in Rev. Lyons' state racketeering trial, and now Bernice Edwards, his co-defendant, could not find words for Mrs. Lyons.

Edwards began sobbing. The minister's wife reached out and hugged her. Behind them, someone called out, "In the name of Jesus!"

Mrs. Lyons walked away arm in arm Thursday with the woman she once suspected of having an affair with her husband.

Mrs. Lyons set fire to that Tierra Verde home on July 6, 1997, touching off the state investigation of her husband's finances that eventually led to the criminal charges against him and Edwards.

Their trial is now near an end.

Prosecutors finished their closing arguments Thursday morning on the 27th day of trial, and six jurors deliberated for 21/2 hours before a judge allowed them to retire for the evening. They resume deliberations today.

With jurors' work begun, Lyons' supporters linked hands outside the courtroom, singing What a Friend We Have in Jesus and offering prayers that the all-white jury would return a just verdict.

"Our father, we need your intervening," said the Rev. Charles Emery of Gary, Ind., who led the prayer. "We need you to work on (jurors') minds, we need you to get into their hearts."

Lyons, facing up to five years in prison if convicted on racketeering and two grand theft charges, bowed his head, neither singing nor praying aloud.

"We've now turned this matter over to God," said Lyons' lead attorney, Grady Irvin Jr.

Earlier, prosecutors told jurors that Lyons, president of the National Baptist Convention USA, and Edwards, the NBC's former public relations director, swindled more than $4-million from corporations eager to tap into the convention's supposed 8.5-million members.

Lyons is separately charged with stealing most of the $244,500 that the Anti-Defamation League gave him in 1996 to distribute to burned black churches needing rebuilding.

Prosecutors say Lyons used the convention's good name to reap millions, taking advantage of a religious organization that afforded its president powers unheard of in the business world.

"The National Baptist Convention was an atmosphere ripe for exploitation," Assistant State Attorney Bill Loughery told jurors in his closing. "It was an absolutely perfect atmosphere for him."

One after the other, he ridiculed arguments defending Lyons' alleged misdeeds.

What about the notion that Lyons' corporate victims didn't act like victims, that they never even bothered to call police?

"They're going to accuse the black pope of that kind of behavior without proof?" Loughery said, his voice rising in a mocking tone.

Don't Lyons' dealings with corporations amount to business deals gone bad?

"Dr. Lyons made millions of dollars, yet they want you to believe these are failed corporate deals," said Loughery, telling jurors failed business deals led to losses to all parties involved.

Aren't prosecutors who are tracing the flow of cash between Lyons' and his alleged love interests behaving like the morality police?

The reverend should police morality, Loughery said. But "somewhere along the line he traded the good book for the bank book, and that's what this case is all about."

Didn't Lyons do good deeds, pay down the mortgage on the convention's headquarters and donate hundreds of thousands to black colleges?

"So he did what he was elected to do. Does that make him not guilty?" Loughery asked.

And finally, what of the contention that Lyons' alleged victims are the embodiment of corporate greed? Loughery reminded jurors of the Anti-Defamation League and its charity to burned churches.

"Where's the ADL's corporate greed? How dare Dr. Lyons keep that money? It's beyond hypocrisy."

Then Loughery posed a question of his own: What if Lyons had told the truth to corporations that wanted to market everything from credit cards to funeral plots to NBC members? What if he told them he would funnel their money to his girlfriends, that he would sell them phony convention membership lists, that he would himself spend cash intended for the convention on expensive cars and lavish homes?

Loughery said, "They would have run out of that room so fast it wouldn't have been funny."

 

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