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Supporters worried about Lyons' health

Letters seeking a reduced sentence describe an ill man. ""I see a shell of a man,'' his daughter writes.

By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 18, 1999


ST. PETERSBURG -- Family and friends of Henry J. Lyons say the St. Petersburg minister has fallen into ill health, has lost as much as 50 pounds and is a shadow of the robust Baptist leader he was just months ago.

"He looks diseased and depressing. That fat-cat look is no longer there . . . I feel sorry for him," a supporter, V.L. Gladys, wrote in a letter to a circuit judge.

Other supporters suggest Lyons may have tuberculosis, but Lyons' lawyers and prison officials will neither confirm nor deny such reports.

Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Susan Schaeffer will have 117 letters in hand today when she hears arguments by Lyons' lawyers to reduce the 51/2-year sentence she gave Lyons on March 31 for his racketeering and grand theft convictions.

The letters, which seek a reduced sentence, describe a sick, depressed, broken man who shakes constantly and fears for his safety behind bars.

"When I visit my father, I see a shell of a man," his daughter, Stephanie Lyons, wrote to the court. "This imprisonment has done exactly what the system wanted it to do -- punish him."

When they filed a motion last month asking the court to reduce Lyons' sentence, his lawyers did not mention his ill health. Instead, they said Lyons was "truly repentant," had learned a lesson from his crimes and deserved a lesser sentence.

Such petitions for reconsideration of sentence are routine in state court, though rarely granted. Prosecutors oppose any reduction of Lyons' sentence.

Lawyer Denis de Vlaming said he has only recently become aware of rumors among those close to Lyons that the former president of the National Baptist Convention USA has contracted tuberculosis, or TB.

TB, once known as consumption, is a highly contagious bacterial lung disease spread when an infected person coughs, sneezes or laughs. The bacteria travel in moist air or in food. The disease is treatable.

De Vlaming last week ordered a copy of Lyons' prison medical file, which the lawyer received Monday. He refused to confirm or deny reports that Lyons has TB, though he said Lyons did not have the disease when he was incarcerated beginning March 31.

"We will bring the contents of the medical reports to Judge Schaeffer's attention" today, de Vlaming said in an interview Tuesday. "The judge is going to be the first to know."

A spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections declined to discuss Lyons' health, citing inmate confidentiality.

When he was sentenced in federal court April 18 on separate tax evasion and fraud charges, Lyons appeared to have lost considerable weight. At the time, his lawyers said Lyons had lost 15 pounds.

In the letters to the court, friends and family say he looks thinner still.

"My Dad is not the same man I saw five months ago," his daughter, Sherilda T. Lyons, wrote to Schaeffer. "He has aged, his hair is gray, his eyes are sad, and he has lost about 50 pounds.

"My dad's hands shake when he is drinking and writing. He does not hear as well. He is living in HELL and I feel sorry for him . . . My dad is not a young man and I want to spend whatever time is left with him. But I do not want to do it behind bars . . . My family needs him."

A letter signed by "the Williams family" reads: "He looks like a man who is nothing more than a shadow. Much of the energetic walk and smiles has left the preacher."

Lyons was sentenced to 51 months in prison on the federal charges. But since the sentence was ordered to run concurrently to the 51/2 years he received in state court, the federal sentence didn't add to his time behind bars.

De Vlaming has previously said he would ask Schaeffer to reduce Lyons' state sentence to the same sentence he received in federal court -- 51 months.

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