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Defense cites religion, race in Lyons case


©St. Petersburg Times, published March 4, 1998

LARGO -- In the first courtroom skirmish of the case against the Rev. Henry J. Lyons, attorneys for the Baptist leader went on the attack Tuesday and appeared to lay the foundation for a defense strategy based on religious freedom and race.

Defense attorney Anthony Battaglia accused prosecutors of labeling as criminals "every member" of Lyons' congregation at the Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church, which he called a "pillar of the black community."

He accused Lyons' alleged corporate victims of exploiting black people.

And he accused Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe of trampling the constitutional right of churches to govern their own affairs.

All this, even though the lawyers were there to discuss what is usually a routine matter: a request by Lyons that his bail be reduced. The request was denied, but it was quickly apparent this will be no ordinary case.

McCabe himself argued against the bail reduction. The courtroom exchanges between Battaglia, the dean of the local defense bar, and McCabe, the top prosecutor in Pinellas County, were vitriolic. McCabe variously accused Battaglia of manipulating the hearing to "pontificate and bluster," to "stir passion in the audience," and, then, to "hold a press conference."

With six television cameras rolling from the jury box, the hearing was as much about shaping public opinion as about reducing bail. Lyons' attorneys used the occasion to lay out main elements of their defense strategy and to boost Lyons' image as a national religious leader.

"Posturing," defense attorney Denis de Vlaming acknowledged, was inevitable given the media presence.

Last week, prosecutors did their part to mold opinion by releasing an extraordinary 82-page affidavit that detailed dozens of allegations of fraud, extravagant purchases and an extramarital relationship with a "paramour." One defense attorney Tuesday complained the affidavit was loaded with "blatant hearsay."

"He put his own spin on it, and that wasn't my spin," Battaglia said of McCabe.

Lyons, the president of the National Baptist Convention USA, sat in the front row beside his wife, his daughter and members of Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church. Charged with racketeering and grand theft, he did not speak during the hearing.

* * *

"This has been very draining," Lyons said afterward. "I'm taking it step by step, one day at a time."

Lyons' defense team asked Circuit Judge Nelly Khouzam to release Lyons on his own recognizance.

"Unrealistic and unreasonable," Battaglia termed the $100,000 bail set last week when Lyons was arrested. "Mr. Lyons ain't going nowhere. He's here to clean up his name."

Lyons has numerous ties to Pinellas County, attorney Grady Irvin said. He has been pastor at Bethel for 27 years.

Irvin pointed to Lyons' role in the fall of 1996, after the "severe riots" that followed the police shooting of a black motorist. Lyons was one of the first people President Clinton called, he said. "I think that speaks miles for Rev. Lyons."

In response, McCabe noted that Lyons needed just 20 minutes to post the $100,000 bail. That "clearly shows it is not excessive," he said.

Lyons and his co-defendant, Bernice V. Edwards, are accused of stealing about $4-million. To lower the bail would "trivialize the amount of the theft," McCabe said, adding that Lyons faces a "significant" risk of going to prison if convicted.

In denying the request for lower bail, Judge Khouzam described $100,000 as "very reasonable for a case of this magnitude."

Although only 30 minutes long, the hearing provided the first preview of Lyons' defense strategy. Race and religion figured prominently.

Lyons and Edwards are accused of extorting and defrauding millions of dollars from several white-owned corporations.

But Battaglia signaled that Lyons' defense will question the motives and business ethics of those corporations.

"They're businessmen who were out to exploit the black community," he said. When their deals with the National Baptist Convention "went sour," they set out to blame everyone they could, including Lyons, for their own failures, he said.

Battaglia raised explosive questions about the prosecutors' decision to charge Lyons with racketeering.

The charge, he said, "has been misplaced badly" because it names Lyons' wife, daughter and church as members of a racketeering enterprise.

Bethel has as many as 800 members, he said, and every one of those members is now "tainted" by McCabe's allegations.

"That group represents the pillar of the black community and they have been classified as racketeers," Battaglia said, turning to look at several church members beside Lyons.

McCabe reacted angrily. The language in the racketeering charge, he said, described Bethel and the convention as "legitimate organizations" that Lyons abused for corrupt purposes.

"No one called them racketeering enterprises," McCabe said.

"These types of gratuitous and disingenuous comments I don't think serve any purpose."

Later in the hearing, Battaglia developed a defense theme first revealed last week.

He held up a copy of the U.S. Constitution. He said that he carries it all the time and that the charges against Lyons violate the First Amendment guarantees of religious freedom.

In their 82-page affidavit, prosecutors threw a "handful of darts" that hit the First Amendment "squarely in the center," Battaglia said.

He drew an analogy to a rabbi or priest who accepts a gratuity for performing a wedding.

"Does this make this transaction grand theft or (racketeering)?" he asked. Decisions concerning church money should be left primarily to church leaders, he said. In Lyons' case, leaders of the National Baptist Convention adopted a resolution last fall exonerating him of wrongdoing.

"The state has crossed the line in this case between the state and the church," Battaglia said.

He also outlined two major defenses to charges that Lyons stole $225,000 raised to rebuild burned churches.

First, Lyons had no criminal "intent" when he failed to disburse the money. Second, Lyons acted "in good faith" in his dealings with the Anti-Defamation League, the organization that raised the money though national appeals for donations, Battaglia said.

Lyons, he noted, reimbursed the ADL soon after questions were raised publicly about the money.

"There is no loss," Battaglia said. "They have been paid in full. There is a valid defense."

Asked whether that defense is hurt by the fact Lyons didn't return the money until after it became a public issue, de Vlaming replied: "I wish that it had been paid out before."

The defense "spin" continued even as Lyons left the courthouse surrounded by family, attorneys, church members and reporters.

Lyons is accused of spending millions on mansions and jewelry and luxury cars. On Tuesday, his attorneys portrayed him as a man of more modest means. They said he struggled to obtain the $100,000 bail, which required paying $10,000 in cash and putting up his family home as collateral.

"This is not a very, very wealthy man," Irvin said of Lyons, who once spent $2,000 for a money clip. "He has a family to support."

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