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Edwards, Lyons to be tried together

A judge rejects a request to move Bernice Edwards' trial out of the Tampa Bay area.


© St. Petersburg Times, published December 16, 1998

ST. PETERSBURG -- The Rev. Henry J. Lyons and Bernice Edwards, inextricably linked by prosecutors in a criminal conspiracy, will be tried by one jury in the one place Edwards is convinced she can't get a fair trial.

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

A Pinellas County courtroom.

Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Susan Schaeffer rejected arguments Tuesday by Edwards' attorney that the only way Edwards could obtain a fair trial was by moving the case outside the Tampa Bay area because of extensive publicity.

The lawyer, Paul Sisco, also wanted Schaeffer to give Edwards a separate trial because, in part, that might be the only way for Lyons, president of the National Baptist Convention USA, to testify on her behalf. The judge rejected that request, too.

If tried together, Lyons might decline to testify, to protect his own case.

Lyons and Edwards, a former National Baptist Convention employee, are accused by both state and federal prosecutors of laundering millions of dollars through secret bank accounts to finance a lavish lifestyle.

Edwards, who flew to Pinellas from her Milwaukee home for the hearing, declined comment.

Schaeffer said pretrial publicity about the pair's case is a concern. But she said she has been repeatedly surprised in other well-publicized cases about the court's ability to seat an unbiased jury.

"I'll bet you any amount of money that of the million or more people in Pinellas County we're likely to have 50 people who don't know anything about this case," Schaeffer said.

Lyons has not requested a change of venue.

Schaeffer said the court will use extra caution in screening potential jurors.

In rejecting a bid for a separate trial, Schaeffer questioned why Lyons himself had not filed a motion to sever the two cases if, indeed, he is willing to testify to help her.

The judge said she was more concerned that, in one trial, Edwards might be unfairly associated with an additional charge Lyons faces: the alleged theft of money provided to the NBC by the Anti-Defamation League to rebuild burned black churches.

Prosecutors say Lyons pocketed most of the $244,500 provided by the league beginning in 1996.

All the other accusations of criminal acts by Lyons and Edwards involve large corporations as victims. Sisco said the Anti-Defamation League is different.

"It's the one thing that has a sting to it," he said. "The ADL funds seem to be entirely for charity . . . Every other alleged victim in the case has a business interest" with the National Baptist Convention.

Schaeffer said Anti-Defamation League charges are among the "most egregious" in the case. But she and Assistant State Attorneys Bill Loughery and Bob Lewis agreed that the court can simply remind jurors, when appropriate, that league charges are unrelated to Edwards.

The judge said she may reconsider her decision about moving the case or giving Edwards a separate trial once jury selection begins, especially if seating a panel proves more difficult than expected.

The judge postponed ruling on whether prosecutors can introduce evidence at trial about the probation Edwards served in Wisconsin for an embezzlement conviction.

By introducing the testimony of Edwards' probation officer, prosecutors said they hope to show Edwards was far from being the millionaire she portrayed herself as to victims. Instead, they said, she was a woman without means, receiving government assistance.

Loughery also said Edwards never told her probation officer about a secret account she opened in Wisconsin as part of a money-laundering scheme.

"If everything was on the up and up, why wouldn't she tell her probation officer this?" he said. "It shows her criminal intent."

Sisco said the prior conviction is unrelated to current charges Edwards faces and shouldn't be mentioned to jurors.


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