Emotion overcomes acquitted Edwards
By STEPHEN NOHLGREN
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 28, 1999
LARGO -- For a year, prosecutors tried to portray them as a team: the Rev. Henry J. Lyons, the charismatic religious leader who swindled and spent. Bernice Edwards, the ex-embezzler who advanced his schemes, shared his bed and reveled in his excesses.
On Saturday, a Pinellas jury sent Edwards down her own separate path.
She stood quietly as the court clerk read the verdict. First came Lyons -- guilty on all counts.
Edwards bit her lip and waited her turn. A racketeering conviction could send her directly to prison. Instead, the words "not guilty" set her free.
She leaned against her lawyer and cried.
Edwards, a 42-year-old mother of three, still faces federal charges of fraud, extortion, conspiracy and tax evasion. She will go to trial with Lyons in April.
But Saturday's hurdle brought her hope and relief.
"I thank God. I thank my Lord. I have a very good lawyer. I thank him for sticking with me," Edwards told reporters shortly after collecting herself. "It's been very hard, very difficult."
Prosecutors argued that Lyons and Edwards raked in millions by selling phony, inflated membership lists from the National Baptist Convention USA, where Lyons serves as president and Edwards once was public relations director.
Their abundant spending was rehashed in detail: jewelry, cars, a Lake Tahoe condo and the $700,000 Tierra Verde house that sparked their downfall via a match from Lyons' wife.
Before trial, Edwards' Tampa attorney, Paul Sisco, had tried to distance his client from Lyons by requesting a separate trial. When Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Susan Schaeffer denied that motion, Sisco rolled the dice and put Edwards on the witness stand.
"I worked hard to earn the money," she told the jury with calm assurance. The companies that bought bogus membership lists knew what they were getting, she said. And, no, she didn't have an affair with Lyons.
Prosecutors grilled her on her multiple Social Security numbers, the six-figure income she neglected to report to her probation officer, and her social trips with Lyons to New York City, Hawaii and the Bahamas.
Her testimony served her well, Sisco said.
"The jury wanted an explanation. There was an awful lot of money," he said. "They wanted to hear why Miss Edwards was entitled to those funds."
According to juror Karen Raia, however, the disparate verdicts came down to this: Lyons signed incriminating documents and Edwards didn't.
After the verdict was read, Edwards quietly withdrew to the comfort of her lawyer's arm as tears etched her cheeks. For 15 minutes, she kept her head bowed as Schaeffer thanked the jury and tidied up last-minute details.
From his defense table a few feet away, Lyons fixed his gaze on Edwards for two or three minutes. But she never looked back.
When assorted well-wishers approached her, Edwards' head stayed bent and her whispered responses came sparingly.
Out in the hall, as Sisco steered her through reporters and cameras, Edwards' head snapped up suddenly.
"Where's Doc? Where's Doc?" she asked frantically, referring to Lyons by his nickname.
"He's downstairs," replied Lyons attorney Denis de Vlaming, who grabbed her hand until they reached the escalators.
Edwards never did reach Lyons, although Sisco said the two would talk later Saturday.
Reporters wanted to know how she felt and what she would do next. Sisco gave most of the answers.
"Bree is very emotional about it. It is a bittersweet feeling," he said. "She's just had a friend convicted and obviously has some emotions for that friend."
When Edwards did give brief answers, she usually focused on her hometown of Milwaukee.
"I'm going to go home to my children," she said. "I'm going to tell them I love them."