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Supporter urges Lyons not to resign presidency of NBC

A California minister says Henry Lyons didn't get a fair trial.

By DAVID BARSTOW and WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 2, 1999


In August 1974, during the darkest days of Watergate, Barry Goldwater delivered a forceful message to the White House: "The President has only 12 votes in the Senate," he told Nixon's chief of staff. "He has lied to me for the last time and lied to my colleagues for the last time."

Nixon resigned within days.

If there is a Goldwater-like figure in the National Baptist Convention USA Inc., it would be the Rev. E.V. Hill of Los Angeles, a booming preacher with a wicked sense of humor. Even Hill's adversaries respect his back-room influence in Baptist circles. The Rev. Henry J. Lyons, president of the convention, has benefited greatly from Hill's steadfast support through his legal travails.

So on Saturday, after his convictions for racketeering and grand theft, Lyons asked Hill if he should resign. Hill told Lyons he needed a day of prayer to consider the question.

On Monday morning, Hill arrived at his answer: "I see no need of him resigning," Hill said in an interview from his California home. He said he will advise Lyons to "stay right on in there" as leader of the nation's largest black church group.

To resign, Hill said, would be to validate what he views as an unjust verdict produced by a racist justice system in Pinellas County. "I had hoped that an all-white ... jury could have been fair," he said. "I no longer have that hope in St. Petersburg, Florida."

He drew an analogy to the civil rights era when black defendants across the Deep South frequently were railroaded by white local judges and juries. Back then, black defendants relied upon federal appeals courts for redress. So too, he said, must Lyons seek redress from higher courts.

"In my judgment, Lyons did not get a fair trial locally. We've got to get up higher (to appellate judges)," he said.

While Lyons' longtime rivals were quick to call for his resignation after Saturday's verdict, Hill's comments offer a window into the advice Lyons is now getting from trusted backers in the convention as he weighs his future.

State sentencing guidelines call for him to receive a prison term of 3 to 8 years. Asked if he could envision a convention president operating from a prison cell, Hill told the story of a pastor in California whose church refused to oust him after he was sentenced to prison. The pastor, he noted, baptized 2,000 inmates.

"Lyons has to stay (on as president), and we as a people have to stay with him."

Lyons' attorney, Grady Irvin, declined on Monday to say whether his client intends to resign: "It's, of course, a matter that has to be addressed and is going to be addressed in both an appropriate and timely manner," Irvin said.

Irvin rejected Hill's concerns about the jury, saying he stood by his post-verdict comments Saturday in which he praised jurors for their conscientious effort to reach a verdict.

Juror Christina Burris, a 22-year-old sales associate, likewise defended the verdict, saying race never entered deliberations.

"It was strictly the evidence," she said Monday. "I don't see how they think racism was an issue because there was so much evidence to convict him. It was very obvious. Just so obvious."

But Hill criticized the jurors for seeming to decide quickly on Lyons' guilt. Yes, he conceded, a reasonable jury could have convicted Lyons. "But it should have been a very hard decision -- a wrenching of the soul."

Burris, who called her jury service "the greatest experience of my life," said the jury didn't rush to judgment on Lyons. They spent hours sifting through evidence before taking a formal vote to convict Lyons deep into their second day of deliberation. Several jurors had tears in their eyes when their verdicts were announced -- including the acquittal of co-defendant Bernice Edwards.

"They didn't see and hear what I saw -- all the evidence," Burris said of Hill and other critics.

Hill, though, was skeptical of the length of the deliberations. "Was it a charade?" he asked. "Was it a put-up job?"

Hill wasn't the only major convention figure signaling continued support for Lyons. The Rev. S.C. Cureton, the NBC vice president who would take over if Lyons were to resign, told the Associated Press he, too, will support Lyons if Lyons decides to remain president.

"If an individual feels he can do better by being there, good," Cureton said. "If not, then he makes the decision. If he can live with it, I can live with it."

The Rev. Roscoe D. Cooper Jr., general secretary of the convention, declined on Monday to comment on whether Lyons should resign. "I have nothing to say," he said, noting that Lyons' fate is being discussed by the convention's executive committee.

The Rev. Michael P. Williams, an influential Houston pastor with close ties to Cooper, predicted Lyons ultimately will quit.

"In a situation where there has been so little honor and virtue, certainly the honorable thing would be to resign and release the convention from what has been its darkest time," he said.

"I think Dr. Lyons, after this brief moment of false bravado, is going to resign. I think for all intents and purposes, the conviction ended the presidency of Henry Lyons. It's over. It's over. It's over."

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