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Lyons attorneys ask for dismissal of charges


© St. Petersburg Times, published April 4, 2006

LARGO -- In court papers filed Friday, attorneys for the Rev. Henry J. Lyons asked a judge to dismiss racketeering and grand theft charges against the Baptist leader, arguing that the charges violate Lyons' right to religious freedom.

"By penalizing the manner in which the defendant conducted or participated in the affairs of an enterprise with a predominate religious purpose, the state has impermissibly penalized the free exercise of religion in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution," states one of four motions submitted to Pinellas-Pasco Chief Circuit Judge Susan F. Schaeffer.

Oral arguments on the motions are scheduled for May 15.

The charges against Lyons take direct aim at the St. Petersburg minister's conduct since he was elected president of the National Baptist Convention USA Inc. in 1994.

Prosecutors allege that Lyons converted one of the nation's oldest and largest black denominations into a criminal racket. Lyons and his former aide, Bernice Edwards, are accused of engaging in a pattern of fraud and extortion to steal millions of dollars from corporations that did business with the convention.

Since Lyons' arrest in February, his attorneys have vowed to mount a defense based on the idea that prosecutors do not have the authority to interfere in how a religious group collects and spends money. Friday's motions continued this theme.

"By proscribing the manner in which the defendant conducted the affairs of an enterprise with a predominate religious purpose, the state has prescribed the orthodox way of doing so, thereby establishing a religion in violation" of the federal and state constitutions, the motions state.

Prosecutors declined to comment on the motions.

In the motions, Lyons' defense team also asked prosecutors to provide more details of the accusations, questioned whether the charging document meets all legal requirements and contended that prosecutors padded their case against Lyons with repetitive criminal counts.

In the racketeering charge, the most serious count Lyons faces, the prosecutors accuse him of 12 "predicate" acts they say comprise a pattern of crime. Those acts, they assert, include defrauding a Tennessee bank to get hundreds of thousands of dollars; misleading Globe Life and Accident Insurance Co. by promising non-existent convention membership lists; extorting more than a million dollars from The Loewen Group, a Canadian funeral home conglomerate; and stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars meant for burned churches in the South.

In some instances, prosecutors split into several predicate acts Lyons' dealings with a single corporation. To that, the Lyons defense team objected. The Globe Life deal, for example, is cited in three different predicate acts.

"From the face of the information, it is clear that there was, according to the state, a single scheme with a single victim," the defense motion said of the Globe counts. "These 'sub-acts' are improperly split into three acts in order to compound the number of predicate acts alleged."

The defense team is calling for the judge to throw out the case or pare down the "multiplicious predicate acts." Under state racketeering statutes, a jury must find a defendant to have committed at least two predicate acts within five years.

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