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Lyons' future rests on prison decision

As he enters state court for sentencing today, he may leave in cuffs - or in limbo.

By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 31, 1999



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


LARGO -- Baptist leader Henry J. Lyons today will confront what he calls his "awesome fear" when he walks into a Pinellas County courtroom to receive a prison sentence he knows is inevitable.

What isn't as certain is when Lyons will report to prison, or where: to a state penitentiary to serve hard time or a minimum-security federal "camp" for non-violent prisoners.

Earlier this month, Lyons said he was nervous about the prospect of prison, adding, "It's the first time in my life I don't know what my future holds other than punishment. That's an awesome fear."

When he walks into the courtroom this afternoon, Lyons has no guarantee he won't leave it in handcuffs and be sent immediately to serve his time. The judge also could allow him to remain free a few more months until he is sentenced on federal charges, thereby increasing the likelihood that Lyons would serve time in a federal facility.

Under state guidelines, Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Susan Schaeffer can sentence Lyons to from three to eight years in prison for his Feb. 27 conviction on racketeering and grand theft charges.

"We will ask the judge to be as lenient as she can be," said Denis de Vlaming, one of Lyons' attorneys. "I believe he has taken responsibility for his actions."

Lyons, 57, who resigned earlier this month as president of the National Baptist Convention USA, has also pleaded guilty to five federal charges of tax evasion and fraud and is set to be sentenced on those charges June 18.

He faces 70 to 87 months in prison for federal charges.

Lyons' attorneys hope a federal judge would impose a sentence to run concurrently with whatever sentence Lyons receives from Schaeffer and then recommend he be housed in a minimum-security federal facility.

But if Lyons is already serving time in a Florida prison in June, the federal Bureau of Prisons is more likely to decide to keep him there rather than transfer him, de Vlaming said.

Prosecutors say they will ask Schaeffer to order Lyons to prison right away.

"Most defendants would be remanded immediately," said Assistant State Attorney Bill Loughery. "There is no reason to delay it. He was found guilty. He shouldn't get some advantage because there are other charges against him in federal court."

One wild card in Schaeffer's decision to cut Lyons a break could prove to be any perceived lack of remorse by the St. Petersburg minister.

Lyons' lawyers expect that Schaeffer has closely watched and read Lyons' statements to the media in the weeks after his conviction. In fact, the judge earlier this month told a reporter she planned to have a friend tape Lyons' March 15 interview with Connie Chung on 20/20 because she would be out of town.

At times during interviews, Lyons has appeared to be genuinely contrite. But at other times, he seemed to backtrack, telling the Today show, "I never thought to or attempted to get away with anything."

And prosecutors today could remind Schaeffer of the March 15 advertisement in the St. Petersburg Times bought by the Rev. J.J. Barfield III, one of Lyons' staunchest supporters.

The ad says the guilty verdicts against Lyons were a "gross miscarriage of justice" and were the product of a racist judicial system.

"The verdict on Dr. Lyons proves that when the life of a black person is put into the hands of six white (jurors), this is what you end up with," the ad said.

Barfield said Tuesday that Lyons approved the ad before it was published. "I read it to him," Barfield said. "He thought it was the truth."

De Vlaming said he was distressed when he read the advertisement. "I remember reading it on my easy chair and my teeth clenched," he said. "I figured that as I was reading it, the judge was reading it, too."

State Attorney Bernie McCabe said, "A little birdie told me the judge saw it."

De Vlaming, however, said Lyons assured him he had not approved the ad's actual wording.

Another of Lyons' attorneys, Jay Hebert, said the minister is definitely remorseful and will tell Schaeffer as much today.

"He feels a great deal of pain for what he has brought upon the convention, his family, his church and himself," Hebert said. "He will let the judge know how he feels."

Lyons is expected to bring several supporters to court, who also may have the opportunity to ask Schaeffer for leniency.

The same all-white jury that convicted Lyons also acquitted Lyons' co-defendant, Bernice Edwards.

The two were accused of using the convention's good name to steal millions of dollars from corporations that wanted to tap into the NBC's supposed 8.5-million members. The money, prosecutors say, financed a life of luxury.

Lyons alone was charged with grand theft for pocketing most of the $244,500 the Anti-Defamation League gave him to help rebuild burned black churches.

 

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