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Jurors wavered on Edwards, but never on Lyons

An extensive paper trail pointed to the Rev. Lyons' guilt, jurors say, but not to his co-defendant's.


© St. Petersburg Times, published February 28, 1999

LARGO -- From the moment they finished going over the evidence against the Rev. Henry J. Lyons, the six jurors were in agreement: He was guilty of racketeering and grand theft.

The forged documents, the fake membership list he sold to corporations, the way he spent money for burned churches on personal luxuries -- everything pointed to Lyons' guilt, jurors said Saturday after the trial.

"I never really had a doubt on him," said juror Christina Burris, 22, a sales associate from Oldsmar. "I think that what he did was wrong."

But the jurors were less certain about the case against Lyons' co-defendant and alleged mistress, Bernice Edwards. Their votes see-sawed back and forth before they acquitted her of racketeering.

"The hand just wasn't in the cookie jar," said juror Karen Raia, 47, from Palm Harbor, a briefing coordinator at a technology company.

The jury of five women and one man spent about 13 hours over three days debating the fate of the two National Baptist Convention USA officials.

"We wanted to look over every piece of evidence to make sure a fair verdict came out," explained juror Shannon Byrd, a 27-year-old insurance claims report administrator from St. Petersburg. Byrd drew attention Saturday after an e-mail sent to two television stations alleged she had spoken about the case to a friend during the trial.

Convicting Lyons was not something they did lightly, Byrd said.

"It's very sad," she said. "You don't want to send anyone to jail."

The jurors who judged Lyons and Edwards first arrived at the Pinellas County Criminal Justice Center on Jan. 11 as part of a pool of 100 people culled from the rolls of the county's licensed drivers.

Over three days, the judge and attorneys questioned them extensively about their views on race, religion and the media. Ultimately, the six picked were all white but had little else in common.

They hailed from all over Pinellas. Three were smokers, three were not. Three had served on a jury before, the others had not. Burris originally had been summoned for jury duty in July but managed to put it off for nearly six months -- until the Lyons case.

Over the next month, the six jurors heard testimony about a complex web of financial transactions that prosecutors said showed how Lyons and Edwards turned a religious group into a money-making machine that paid for diamond rings and expensive cars. They saw Edwards testify but not Lyons.

"I took two full books of notes," Raia said.

Burris often left court after a full day of testimony to go work her regular job. She also worked weekends. "It was tiring," she said.

Meanwhile, Raia had injured her back. She did not want to take drugs to ease the pain, fearing they might make her groggy, so she brought a heating pad to court every day.

On Thursday morning, Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Susan Schaeffer read the six their instructions and sent them to the jury room to deliberate. Bailiffs wheeled in a cart stacked high with all the contracts and checks that had been put into evidence.

The jurors picked a music teacher to be their forewoman. Then they began going over each count, pulling out each stack of evidence to go with it.

They took their first break after just 21/2 hours Thursday afternoon, feeling burned out from hearing the closing arguments. On Friday morning, they went back at it feeling rested and clearheaded, Raia said, and soon reached a consensus on Lyons' guilt.

"We decided let's have lunch and then let's vote on it," Raia said. After visiting the courthouse cafe, "we discussed it a little bit more, then voted on it. After the vote, we asked, "Are you certain, are you certain, are you certain?' It was a vote and then an affirmation."

It would not have mattered if Lyons had testified, Byrd and Burris said. Every document convinced them the prosecutors were right about him.

"We had doubts, but we did the research," Raia said. "We looked. We found documents. We found signatures."

Particularly galling to some jurors was what Lyons did with more than $200,000 that the Anti-Defamation League had given him to aid burned churches. Lyons told ADL leaders that he had "immediately determined where these funds should go and the wheels that are squeaking loudest we will give the funds to those churches."

Instead, records showed Lyons used the money to pay his own credit card bill and redecorate his house, and that he deposited $60,000 in a personal bank account and sent cash to a lover in Tennessee, prosecutors said.

Good people had donated that money for a specific purpose, Byrd said. To find out it did not go to the churches it was intended to help "really bothered me," she said.

"If my money was going somewhere instead of where they said it would, I'd be really mad," Burris agreed.

But reaching a decision on Edwards was more difficult. Byrd and another juror believed Edwards was just along for the ride while Lyons was the mastermind, Byrd said. Others were equally certain she was as guilty as Lyons.

"We had real disagreements," Raia said, "but nobody took it personally."

Each vote split differently -- 4 to 2 to acquit, 3 to 3 to convict, the jurors said. But one fact that had some armchair experts predicting Edwards would be convicted -- her admission that she had previously been convicted of embezzlement in Milwaukee -- had no effect on the jury, Byrd said.

"We didn't think her criminal past had anything to do with what was going on here," she said.

When they cast their last ballot Saturday morning, the two who believed she was an innocent patsy of Lyons were joined by four others who concluded the state simply did not prove its case against her.

"She was very careful," Raia said. "There was no paper trail."

Raia and Byrd watched with tears in their eyes as the clerk announced their verdicts. All the jurors felt wrung out, exhausted. Lyons showed no emotion, but Edwards broke down crying.

"If she did something wrong," Raia said, "she will pay. Maybe not in this lifetime."

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