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In final analysis, Lyons prosecutors praised

Members of the legal community say State Attorney Bernie McCabe, in particular, and federal prosecutors came out shining.

By LARRY DOUGHERTY and WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 19, 1999


In the legal battles over the fate of the Rev. Henry J. Lyons, no one lost more than Lyons himself.

Last month, Lyons resigned his leadership of the National Baptist Convention USA Inc. and began serving a 5 1/2-year state prison sentence. Lyons' family, and the religious faithful who put their trust in him, have lost a great deal, too.

The prosecutors and defense attorneys who fought over Lyons, however, had their own fortunes embedded in his. And lawyers, as prone as anyone to Monday-morning quarterbacking, naturally evaluate how things were handled -- who is up, and who is not.

A number of local attorneys and former prosecutors interviewed said that the office of Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe came out smelling like a rose. The federal prosecutors under U.S. Attorney Charles Wilson finished right behind McCabe's troops.

Few things are harder to second-guess than high-profile criminal litigation, with its deadline decisions, media scrutiny and unforeseen consequences. Yet, in hindsight, it's clear there were a number of richly nuanced decisions factoring into Lyons' fate:

McCabe took the risk of filing charges first, and his office was subjected to the most incendiary attacks concerning race and religion. A jury upheld all McCabe's charges against Lyons. Despite the acquittal of Lyons associate Bernice Edwards, the verdict vindicated McCabe, and he received apologies from Lyons and Lyons' wife, Deborah.

When their turn came, Wilson's prosecutors took a hard line. They decided that Lyons' repeated public protestations of innocence necessitated a massive 54-count indictment, as well as charges against Edwards and NBC meetings planner Brenda Harris. Lyons agreed to plead guilty to five counts. Despite obtaining admissions that Lyons had never before made, the feds were questioned by some for dropping the bulk of their charges.

Lyons and his attorneys made a fateful decision last year to defend him first against the state charges rather than the federal ones. While the state case exposed Lyons to a shorter sentence, it also commended him to the harsher confines of a state prison, instead of a more accommodating federal minimum-security one.

McCabe, in his seventh year as chief prosecutor for Pinellas and Pasco counties, isn't inclined to gloat about Lyons' conviction.

"I take no particular joy in prosecuting someone of the stature of Dr. Lyons," McCabe said. "I am satisfied that we did the right thing."

McCabe felt the facts and the law were on his side. That's why charges of racial bias stung.

"To suggest that a prosecution is racially motivated attacks the integrity of what you're doing," he said. "I don't mind people saying I'm incompetent, saying I'm stupid or saying I'm blundering. I can take that stuff. When you attack my integrity, that's when I take it personally."

Those attacks slipped farther away when Lyons finally admitted his guilt in federal court March 17, to avert a second trial. At Lyons' sentencing March 31, McCabe received apologies from Lyons and Lyons' wife.

"I think as more and more people became aware of the facts of the case and realized it was not an attack on the church or religion, I suspect support dwindled," McCabe said. "The facts are overwhelming. Anyone who takes a fair look at the facts would say, "Hey, they've got a case.' "

Many private attorneys agreed that McCabe successfully negotiated the pitfalls of a highly publicized case that was wired for detonation.

St. Petersburg lawyer Dyril Flanagan, one of Pinellas' most prominent African-American attorneys, called it "a good, clean prosecution. The masses don't view this investigation in any racist aspect at all. I think that says a lot about the job the prosecution did."

"Hats off to McCabe's office," said Bob Merkle, the former U.S. Attorney now in private practice in Tampa.

Merkle also praised Wilson's office, and Wilson's decision to negotiate a plea deal, saying "Why go through a two-month trial, use scarce resources and cost taxpayers beaucoup bucks to basically reinvent the wheel?"

George Tragos, a former federal prosecutor now in private practice in Clearwater, said McCabe's office "came out smelling like a rose."

"They were particularly vindicated by the plea in federal court," said Tragos, who once represented former PTL religious-fraud defendant Richard Dortch.

"When (Lyons) pleaded guilty, that proved to everyone it had nothing to do with racism, and that he was guilty of a crime," Tragos said. "And it did away with the need for an appeal in the state trial, pretty much."

Tragos said the full measure of the federal prosecution can't be taken until Lyons is sentenced in federal court on June 18. For his plea deal, Lyons might get six or seven years -- a far cry from the 18 years Lyons might have gotten had he gone to trial in federal court and been convicted on all counts. But Tragos doesn't think Lyons got off lightly.

"I don't believe he got a sweet deal in federal court," Tragos said. "He got a negotiated deal, not a sweet deal. And the way it's played out, (Lyons' being) in state prison, is much worse. It's harsher time."

Moreover, Lyons' posturing cost him in additional charges from the federal government, Tragos said.

"There was a lot of mudslinging . . . press conferences every day," Tragos said. "That's why you tell your client not to talk."

Federal prosecutors agreed with Tragos on this point. U.S. Attorney Wilson, hardly a media hound and reportedly under consideration for a federal appellate judgeship, declined a request for an interview. Wilson forwarded questions to line prosecutor Ken Lawson, the U.S. Marine reserves captain assigned to the Lyons case.

Lawson agreed that Lyons' repeated public protestations of his innocence necessitated the federal government's gargantuan 54-count indictment of Lyons.

"There was a challenge that there was not a case against Dr. Lyons, and therefore it was necessary for us to investigate fully, and draft a comprehensive indictment listing all offenses," said Lawson. "By doing that, we would paint the picture to the jury that this is not a slipshod case."

The fact that Lawson, like his boss Wilson, is black meant that the race card was folded anywhere near the federal courthouse.

One of Lyons' attorneys, Grady Irvin, said the fact of Lyons' national prominence was an issue that "had to be dealt with" as he moved toward trial. Yet Irvin declined to say whether Lyons would have been better off had he refused to discuss the charges in public.

"I'm not going to play Monday-morning quarterback," Irvin said.

Irvin also declined to speculate on what might have been, if Lyons had gone to trial in federal court first.

At a status hearing last September, U.S. District Judge Henry Lee Adams Jr. had pushed for a trial in December, before the state trial scheduled for January. But Irvin, essentially Lyons' only attorney at the time, asked for more time to prepare for the federal trial, and Adams set a date in April.

Clearwater lawyer John Trevena said it made sense for Lyons to go first in the case that threatened less prison time. But the Lyons case seems to be only the latest reminder that both the Florida and the federal prison systems are traditionally loath to accept a prisoner already doing time in the other's system.

Irvin said that although "Dr. Lyons and the people participating in his defense in the state trial did the best that they could, the outcome was not what we had hoped for. . . . It is out of the control of the lawyers as to what prison the client will serve his sentence in."

Irvin said these past two years have been "a very tough time for the Lyons family, especially Mrs. Lyons."

In July 1997, Deborah Lyons discovered Bernice Edwards' name on the deed of the Tierra Verde house Edwards owned with Lyons. The fire Deborah Lyons set there began to unravel the image of Lyons as a national religious leader. His undoing came from the hand of his most steadfast supporter.

"Because of Deborah Lyons, the great ship Lyons sank," said Lawson, the federal prosecutor. "She was his iceberg."

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