By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE
© St. Petersburg Times, published August 19, 1999
ST. PETERSBURG -- They came to court Wednesday with pleas of mercy for the ailing body and spirit of the Rev. Henry J. Lyons.
His supporters described the St. Petersburg minister, the former robust leader of a nation of Baptists, as an ill, humiliated man broken by four months in prison, barely recognizable to those who know him best.
"When he looks to me now, he looks away in shame," Lyons' son, Derek Lyons, told a judge. "His fall from grace has been total and unrecoverable."
But Lyons, 57, the judge said, had already received a measure of mercy and wouldn't receive the benefit of another.
Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Susan Schaeffer refused a request by Lyons' attorneys to reduce by up to 15 months the 51/2-year sentence she imposed on him March 31 for his state racketeering and grand theft convictions.
As she announced her decision during a 90-minute hearing, Lyons prayed in a prison chapel near Ocala, where he is serving his time, his lawyers say.
Schaeffer said she could have sentenced Lyons to just over eight years in prison but decided at his March sentencing that a lifetime of good deeds had earned the former president of the National Baptist Convention USA a lesser penalty.
"That was my attempt at mercy," said the judge, who agreed that Lyons is probably rehabilitated.
The judge said she read more than 120 letters from Lyons' supporters but decided an early release would send the wrong message to "the high and mighty" who might someday consider violating a position of trust just as Lyons did.
She also remarked about letters from children who support Lyons, children who might also hear a poor message if Lyons is freed early, Schaeffer said.
"When they get older and they have the chance to make their own choices in life ... they need to be told no matter who you are, no matter if you're rich or poor, no matter if you're black or white, no matter if you're Christian or Jew ... if you don't live within the law you will go to a place like Dr. Lyons went; a place that brings out illness ... a place where you'll live among murderers and thieves, a place that isn't pretty. "To me," Schaeffer said, "he received a fair and just sentence."
Some of the letters to Schaeffer say that Lyons is a shadow of his former self and has lost as many as 50 pounds and suffers from tuberculosis.
In fact, Lyons does not currently suffer from the highly contagious respiratory disease.
Lyons' attorney, Denis de Vlaming, told Schaeffer that Lyons' prison medical records show he tested positive for a TB antibody, which means that he may have been exposed to tuberculosis while imprisoned.
As a precaution, de Vlaming said, prison doctors have placed Lyons on antibiotics and vitamins.
A TB specialist at the Pinellas County Health Department said in an interview that about 10 percent of those who test positive for the tuberculosis antibody will eventually contract the disease.
"Most people don't understand that testing positive doesn't mean you have TB," said Rob Berger, a county TB program manager.
Schaeffer said she might have been inclined to give Lyons a lesser sentence if he suffered from an incurable, terminal disease.
But the judge said she, as much as anybody, knows that TB, once considered fatal, is now highly treatable. Her own mother suffered from the disease yet survived into her late 60s.
While some letters to the judge said Lyons has lost 50 pounds in prison, medical records show Lyons has actually lost about 20 pounds.
The letters to the court also touch on something else that neither Lyons' family nor lawyers discussed inside or outside of court:
A rift in the minister's family.
"His family is shamefully divided and they have separated. I wish for him to be released if for nothing less than to get his personal life in order," supporter W.K. Dorthees said in a letter to Schaeffer.
In another letter, Lyons' daughter Stephanie said, "My family is now a dysfunctional unit because of our head member's imprisonment."
Lyons' attorneys say they know nothing of such talk. Deborah Lyons, his wife, could not be reached for comment. She did not attend the hearing, though she wrote Schaeffer a letter asking for her husband's early release.
Lyons' attorneys also said they knew nothing about the "For Sale" sign in front of the home Lyons owns with his wife at 45th Street S.
When Lyons pleaded guilty to federal fraud and tax evasion charges this year, the $232,000 house was the one possession Lyons wasn't forced to forfeit to compensate his victims.
In a three-page letter to Schaeffer, Lyons told the judge that he yielded to temptation and that prison has taught him "the obvious trip of self importance that I was on."
"My lessons here in prison are hard and well learned and earned," he wrote. "I have paid the price for my sins and crimes, and I'm still paying that price."
Schaeffer said he will keep paying that price until the day he is released.
"Prison isn't a country club," she said. "It isn't meant to be."
-- Times staff writer Mike Brassfield contributed to this report.