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The jury convicts the church president on all three counts but acquits his co-defendant.

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The Rev. Henry J. Lyons is fingerprinted Saturday by bailiff Dick Hennig as defense lawyer Grady Irvin looks on. [Times photo: Cherie Diez]

By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE and DAVID BARSTOW

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 28, 1999


LARGO -- Jurors, some with tears in their eyes, found the Rev. Henry J. Lyons guilty of racketeering and grand theft on Saturday, deciding after 13 hours of emotional deliberations that Lyons abused his position as the nation's pre-eminent black church leader to enrich himself and his friends.

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Co-defendant Bernice Edwards , weeping on the shoulder of her lawyer Paul Sisco, was found not guilty. She still faces federal charges and will be tried again with Lyons in April. [Times photo: Cherie Diez]
"What he did was wrong," said one juror, Christina Burris, a 22-year-old sales associate from Oldsmar.

The same all-white jury, however, acquitted Lyons' co-defendant, Bernice Edwards, the former public relations director of the National Baptist Convention USA Inc., who also was charged with racketeering.

As the verdicts were announced, Lyons, 57, stared off into the distance, maintaining the same stoicism he displayed throughout the six-week trial. He did not turn to his wife, who sat behind him, or to his attorneys. Ever polite, he smiled slightly at the bailiff who rolled his fingers one by one on an ink pad, pressing each to a card as a record of his guilt.

Edwards, 42, who had defiantly jousted with prosecutors from the witness stand, slumped against her lawyer's shoulder.

In the moments before her acquittal, all signs seemed to point to her conviction. There were Lyons' three guilty verdicts, each read before hers was announced. Then there was a mystery e-mail, sent to two TV stations Friday, which seemed to indicate that only one juror was holding out against her conviction.

With the words "not guilty," she closed her eyes tight and wept.

A man once courted by the powerful, from President Clinton to members of Congress to wealthy CEOs, Lyons, pastor at St. Petersburg's Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church, now faces the prospect of trading his conservative blue suits for prison blues. He faces three to eight years in prison under state sentencing guidelines.

"I've got to sit down with my deacons and with my wife and with my family and see what we're going to do," Lyons said in a voice so quiet, so deflated from the one he played like a master musician in his mesmerizing sermons.

"I'll be doing some praying."

Lyons was escorted from the courtroom by a phalanx of family and friends, just as he was escorted from a Denver meeting hall in 1997 after routing those in the convention who had demanded his resignation as president after the scandal broke. Back in 1997, the phalanx protected him from supportive Baptists who mobbed him from all sides. This time, the phalanx held only reporters at bay.

Lyons would not say whether he planned to resign his presidency before his term expires in September. His attorney, Grady Irvin Jr., would only say: "He will, as far as I'm aware, remain president until such time there is a decision otherwise."

But across the country there were immediate calls for Lyons' resignation, especially from those who are challenging his grip on the convention, including the Rev. W. Franklyn Richardson of Mount Vernon, N.Y.

"The convention has been made to be his accomplice and, to some degree, his protector through all of this. And the time has come for him to release the convention," Richardson said. "If there is any grounds for a forgiving spirit in the convention, it will be determined to a large degree by how he handles this time now.

"Does he do the noble thing? Or does he do the selfish thing? That's the only decision he has."

Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Susan Schaeffer allowed Lyons to remain free on bail, but did not immediately set sentencing. That will come after the court receives a pre-sentence investigation of Lyons, probably within six weeks.

"I'm sorry this is an extra burden for you," Schaeffer told him, referring to the funeral today in Gainesville of Lyons' stepgrandmother, Minnie Lyons, who died Wednesday at age 81.

The judge sternly warned Lyons to appear for his sentencing. "If you don't appear," she said, "it would be disastrous for you."

Lyons, leaning slightly on the podium, said softly, "I will appear, your honor."

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Judge Susan Schaeffer discusses the e-mail that cause a controversy on Saturday. [Times photo: Cherie Diez]

To Edwards, who was forced to tell jurors she was a convicted embezzler, the judge said, "In this country, the jury system is as good as it gets and certainly worked in your case. . . . Jurors can get past criminal records."

Shortly after the verdict, Lyons prayed with supporters in a courthouse law library. As Lyons stood with his head bowed, his wife, Deborah, led the impassioned prayer.

"We're wanting your answer, Lord," Mrs. Lyons said. "We don't know how long it will take. This is your servant. . . . Bless him, Lord."

Lyons' son, Derek, collapsed in an asthma attack during the prayer, though he quickly recovered.

Edwards tried to join the prayer group in the library, but she was politely turned away by Grady Irvin. Instead, she stood by a courthouse escalator, tears streaming.

Her attorney, Paul Sisco, kept his arm around Edwards' shoulder. She told reporters that she looked forward to returning to her Milwaukee home and her three children.

"I thank God, I thank my Lord," she said. "I have a very good lawyer. I thank him for sticking with me. It's been very hard, very difficult."

Jurors interviewed after the verdict said their deliberations were prolonged because they decided to go through the evidence methodically.

As they did, jurors said, they became convinced by Friday of Lyons' guilt. "We had doubts, but we did the research," said juror Karen Raia, 47, of St. Petersburg. "We looked. We found documents. We found signatures."

The case took a twist that Assistant State Attorney Bob Lewis called "beyond bizarre."

* * *

But by Saturday morning, jurors concluded they could not find enough documentation to convince them that the case against Edwards was similarly airtight.

"She was very careful. There was no paper trail," Raia said. "The hand just wasn't in the cookie jar."

State Attorney Bernie McCabe said afterward that he was surprised at Edwards' acquittal. "I was just as confident with her case," he said. "But the jury obviously didn't agree with my view of the evidence."

And then: "I always felt confident that we were doing the right thing and it would come out right in the end."

Jurors resumed deliberations at 9 a.m. Saturday as more than a dozen local and national reporters gathered at court to await a verdict. Little more than an hour later, the case took a twist that Assistant State Attorney Bob Lewis called "beyond bizarre."

A mysterious e-mail, sent to two local television stations, suddenly provided high drama that was broadcast live for local viewers.

The e-mail, from someone who identified himself as Maxwell Williams, said a juror named Shannon had been overheard Thursday discussing deliberations with a friend. Shannon, the message said, felt miserable because, while all six jurors agreed Lyons was guilty, she was the only juror who wanted to acquit Bernice Edwards.

On Saturday morning, a reporter for Bay News 9 handed the e-mail over to the Lyons' defense team. Lawyers gave it to Judge Schaeffer, who called in prosecutors. Schaeffer also ordered the jury to suspend deliberations until the e-mail could be discussed.

She was too late.

When the bailiff arrived to stop deliberations, jurors announced they had reached a verdict.

Defense attorneys for Lyons and Edwards immediately asked for a mistrial. Schaeffer refused, then summoned the jury and sealed the verdicts. She dismissed all but one of the jurors, Shannon Byrd, who sat alone in the jury box wondering what was going on.

"I want you to read this," Schaeffer said, sending a bailiff over to Byrd with the e-mail.

As Byrd read, she scrunched her nose and pulled at her chin in bewilderment.

"Do you know Maxwell Williams?" Schaeffer asked.

"No, I do not," Byrd answered. Nor, she said, did she recall saying any of the things attributed to her in the e-mail, though one thing puzzled her: The e-mail mentioned something about her having been a guest on The Ricki Lake Show, and this was true: She had been a Ricki Lake guest.

To Lyons' attorneys, this last fact was all the more reason to give credence to the e-mail and declare a mistrial: "How would any stranger know she appeared on that show?" asked Lyons attorney Denis de Vlaming.

Schaeffer seemed troubled, too, and said she wanted the lunch hour to read case law on jury tampering and consider the situation.

As Lyons left for lunch, he admitted nervousness at an e-mail that, if correct, showed jurors had declared him guilty. "Right now, I'm just sort of numb," he said. "I don't know what to think, what to feel, what to do."

During lunch, as reporters and attorneys scrambled to locate Maxwell Williams, a second e-mail arrived at Bay News 9 -- from Maxwell Williams. This message cast considerable doubt on the first e-mail. Williams now said he "only overheard a stranger in a store discussing it while shopping."

"Frankly, I am very suspect of Maxwell Williams," Schaeffer said in declining to declare a mistrial or delay the verdict.

The judge ordered the jury back into the courtroom, and then the verdict was announced.

Lyons and Edwards were accused of using the convention's good name to swindle more than $4-million from corporations eager to market everything from funeral plots to life insurance to the NBC's supposed 8.5-million members.

Lyons was separately charged with two counts of grand theft for pocketing most of the $244,500 the Anti-Defamation League gave to him in 1996 to distribute to burned black churches.

Lyons, prosecutors said, sold bogus lists of convention members.

What followed the reading of the verdict was chaos. Crowded by reporters, photographers and even his own supporters, Lyons walked down escalators and into the prayer session that lasted 10 minutes before he departed the courthouse altogether.

Reporters called out questions, but the minister refused to answer most. His family similarly declined to comment for reporters who, for nearly 19 months, have been an unwanted part of their lives.

Lyons' attorneys said they were disappointed with the verdict but satisfied with jurors.

* * *

Lyons was finally shepherded into a Chevrolet Blazer, which backed out of a parking space quickly, forcing several reporters to scramble out of the way.

In a news conference, Lyons' attorneys said they were disappointed with the verdict but satisfied with jurors.

"I don't want to second-guess what the jury has done," said Irvin. "This was a very emotional verdict this jury had to render. . . . I think it was a very difficult decision for them to reach."

Asked if having an all-white jury decide Lyons' fate made a difference, Irvin said: "I don't want to say that if the jury had been more ethnically diverse we'd have a different result. I think that would be unfair to this jury."

De Vlaming, meanwhile, said he felt Lyons had a strong appellate issue with the mysterious e-mail.

"The e-mail question is not a dead issue," he said. "We're going to conduct an investigation surrounding that."
-- Times staff writers Craig Pittman, Stephen Nohlgren and Waveney Ann Moore contributed to this report.



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


Related stories

Howard Troxler
What this case was and wasn't truly about
Jurors wavered on Edwards, but never on Lyons
As critics seek resignation, backers offer their support
With e-mails, TV stations didn't hesitate
Emotion overcomes acquitted Edwards
Now comes state trial's big U.S. twin


 

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