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What this case was and wasn't truly about


© St. Petersburg Times, published February 28, 1999

Bernice Edwards in the final seconds: Will the defendants please rise. The clerk reads. Lyons, guilty, guilty, guilty. Her turn now.

Edwards, not guilty.


The focus of all eyes, standing, dressed in her black jacket, hair tightly bound, reddened eyes semiclosed, thunderstruck. She sways imperceptibly, chews her lower lip. Finally her head falls against her attorney's chest.

She cries through the rest. The judge calls her forward, speaks to her attorney Paul Sisco, saying: See? You got a fair trial. There is no debate about it. In the most uphill trial imaginable, the jury has spared her.

Then the judge's ritual words, the formal declaration.

You may go hence without delay.

Later, Sisco talked about Edwards' decision to testify -- when you win, you are a genius, and are called upon to explain it -- by saying the jury had "wanted to hear from the folks."

Maybe so.

Or, maybe not. Maybe the jury thought Edwards' testimony was exactly what the rest of the world thought -- a disaster -- and was more swayed by the cold fact her name was not on the contracts.

The post-trial was not as easy for Lyons' somber-faced legal team. After escorting the newly convicted, freshly fingerprinted president of the National Baptist Convention USA to his car, in which he sped away, they returned to face the microphones.

They were gracious in defeat. They praised the jury, which was a real show of class. They promised to look into that bizarre, last-minute e-mail that claimed a juror had discussed the case.

In the end, there was just too much evidence.

Those jurors who spoke Saturday said there was not much question about Lyons' guilt.

The debate had been Edwards. It figures. Just as much of the hoopla since July 1997 had been focused on the women around Lyons, not Lyons himself, in the final hours, so was his jury.

The story of Henry J. Lyons is not about the state interfering with his church, as the defense had argued.

Lyons was accused of cheating outside corporations, not of being a bad church leader. There is no religious freedom to be a racketeer.

Neither was this trial about, as Lyons' lawyers suggested, cultural differences between blacks and whites.

At times, that kind of defense bordered on reverse racism, as if the Lyons team was saying, hey, don't blame us if we black folks can't keep our books straight -- we are barely out of slavery!

That was an insult to every African-American who has tried to overcome white stereotypes. It also was completely irrelevant to the question of whether Lyons had fraudulently promised the existence of a list of members of the National Baptist Convention.

The defense's most believable claim was that this was about the greed of corporations. The corporations did not exactly come across as victims to feel sorry for. They looked like eager fools, tripping over themselves to pony up millions for Lyons, trying to buy access to easy money.

But the jury was not turned by any of these claims. The jury found that without a reasonable doubt, Lyons had violated the racketeering and theft laws.

So in the end, this trial was about a man with power, but with no check and balance on his power.

It was about a man who, no matter how good his works, chose a lifestyle that turned him inside out.

It was made more scandalous by his being a mighty minister, for he had further to fall. It was made more salacious by the jewelry, fine houses, the travel. But those things were symptom, not cause.

This story was about a human being, and human weakness. It is the oldest story there is. It always begins the same way: with an apple, and a serpent.

Related stories
Jury finds Lyons guilty
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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