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Lyons appeals Florida conviction

The former head of the National Baptist Convention says several mistakes were made in his trial.

By STEPHEN NOHLGREN

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 1, 1999


LARGO -- Alleging five errors by the judge on his case, the Rev. Henry J. Lyons Friday appealed his state court conviction for racketeering and grand theft.

Among other things, the appeal contends that Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Susan Schaeffer should have excluded prejudicial testimony about Lyons' extramarital affairs and should have let the jury know that one complaining victim was suing Lyons and stood to gain from his conviction.

Schaeffer was unavailable for comment. Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe declined to comment on the details of the appeal, but defended Schaeffer's handling of Lyons' lengthy trial, which ended in February.

"All those things were extensively argued during the trial," McCabe said. "Judge Schaeffer made considered decisions on those things, which I'm sure were correct."

Lyons, 57, is serving a 51/2-year sentence in Florida's Marion Correctional Institution. He still awaits sentencing on federal bank fraud and tax evasion charges, to which he pleaded guilty in March.

As president of the National Baptist Convention USA, Lyons sold bogus membership lists to companies eager to market products to his flock. He also pocketed donations intended for burned-out black churches.

Cars, jewelry and property he bought with these gains created a lifestyle that bore little resemblance to the income he reported to tax authorities.

Though Lyons has admitted to bank fraud and cheating on his taxes, he has not admitted to defrauding businesses or stealing money intended for burned-out churches -- the main thrusts of the state convictions.

His appeal in the state case, filed by Clearwater attorney Denis DeVlaming claimed five reversible errors by Schaeffer:

The Loewen Group, a huge international cemetery company, was suing Lyons for $725-million in federal court when its executives testified about the seven-figure payments it made to Lyons. A conviction of Lyons in criminal court would enhance Loewen's chances in civil court, the appeal contended. Schaeffer should have let the jury hear about that and evaluate possible bias by Loewen's witnesses.

Evidence about Lyons' extramarital affairs was so prejudicial that Schaeffer should have kept it from the jury. The possibility of prejudice substantially outweighed any value the testimony might have had in proving the state's case.

Schaeffer should have made the jury specify the individual acts that made up the racketeering charges.

Certain testimonial evidence to support Lyons' defense was not allowed.

The state introduced improper evidence over defense objections.

The appeal gave no specifics on the last two allegations.

Noticeably absent from the appeal was any mention of mysterious e-mail that two television stations received the day of the verdict. Signed by a Maxwell Williams, the first message contended that Williams overheard a Lyons' juror talking about deliberations in the case.

Williams knew that the juror had appeared on the Ricki Lake show, which lent credence to the message, and Lyons' attorneys asked for a mistrial. Schaeffer spent her lunch hour studying case law about jury tampering.

In a second message, however, Williams said he only overheard a stranger in the store discussing the case.

After Schaeffer let the jury render its verdict, DeVlaming said the e-mail might be strong grounds for an appeal.

DeVlaming could not be reached for comment Friday. Grady Irvin, another Lyons attorney, declined to comment on the appeal.

Irvin did say that neither he, DeVlaming, nor Jay Hebert, another lawyer on the state case, would represent Lyons in the appeal.

Lyons has not yet picked an appellate lawyer, Irvin said.

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