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2 trials sought in Lyons inquiry

An attorney wants a separate trial for the minister's codefendant, saying that Lyons himself might testify on Bernice Edwards' behalf.

By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 5, 1998


LARGO -- The Rev. Henry J. Lyons is ready to take the stand and offer testimony that will help his co-defendant, Bernice Edwards, beat a state racketeering charge, Edwards' attorney says.

A Ministry Questioned: more coverage from the St. Petersburg Times.

But there's a catch: Lyons might not testify if the two are prosecuted at the same time during a trial scheduled to open Jan. 11.

In a motion filed Thursday, Edwards' attorney asked Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Susan Schaeffer to order a separate trial for Edwards, in part because it might be the only way to introduce Lyons as a defense witness.

Lyons, president of the National Baptist Convention USA Inc., and Edwards, a former NBC employee, are accused of laundering millions of dollars through secret accounts to finance a lavish lifestyle.

Even if the two are tried together, Lyons still is free to offer testimony helping Edwards. But the danger could be great. For one, prosecutors would be free to cross-examine Lyons to elicit testimony that could harm his own case.

All defendants have a constitutional right to decline to give testimony in their own defense.

Attorneys for Lyons and Edwards could not be reached for comment Friday. Prosecutors with knowledge of the case also could not be reached.

What testimony might Lyons offer to help exonerate Edwards?

Edwards' attorney, Paul Sisco, said in his motion that Lyons:

Has knowledge of "monetary debts" owed to Edwards by the NBC, providing a possible defense about large payments made by Lyons to Edwards.

Knows details of conversations between Edwards and representatives of the Loewen Group, a large Canadian funeral company. Loewen and the NBC entered into an agreement for the NBC to market Loewen products. But prosecutors say Edwards and Lyons instead defrauded the company of $3.2-million.

Can testify that Edwards wasn't present at a meeting between him and representatives of Globe Life and Accident Insurance Co. in June 1995 -- a meeting prosecutors said Edwards attended.

Lyons brokered a deal between Globe and the NBC through which Globe would market life insurance to Baptists. Instead, prosecutors say, Edwards and Lyons defrauded the company of $1-million.

Knows how Edwards used money from Globe to achieve the goals of the NBC's contract with the company.

A separate trial is essential for other reasons, the motion says.

Trying Edwards and Lyons together is unfair, it says, because it associates Edwards with Lyons' alleged theft of funds from the Anti-Defamation League, with which Edwards is not charged.

Beginning in November 1996, the ADL gave Lyons a total of $244,500 to help rebuild black churches that had been burned. Instead, prosecutors say, Lyons pocketed most of the money.

While Lyons and Edwards face racketeering charges, Lyons faces two additional grand theft charges stemming from the alleged ADL theft.

That alleged theft, the motion says, is "undoubtedly the most inflammatory series of allegations" in the case.

The prospect of two trials in a case as complex as the one against Lyons and Edwards certainly would be daunting and expensive to the court and prosecutors. The case against the pair involves witnesses from around the country.

As it stands, one trial for the two defendants is expected to last a month or more.

Edwards already has asked Schaeffer to move the trial outside Pinellas County because of extensive pretrial publicity. Lyons' attorneys have told the court they are undecided.

A hearing on Edwards' motion for a separate trial and change of venue is scheduled for Dec. 15.

 

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