Lyons' lawyer asks out of trial

Grady Irvin says he can't defend the minister in April's federal trial, but observers doubt his motion will be granted.

St. Petersburg Times, March 11, 1999
By Larry Dougherty

TAMPA -- The lawyer who stood beside the Rev. Henry J. Lyons the past two tumultuous years filed a notice Wednesday saying he can't defend Lyons in his federal criminal trial next month.

Lawyer Grady C. Irvin Jr. said Lyons was no longer able to pay him, according to his motion. Irvin also mentioned his disagreement with "questionable" advice Lyons was taking from another, unnamed lawyer.

Whether U.S. District Judge Henry Lee Adams Jr. will grant Irvin's motion is another matter. Federal judges tend to be less accommodating to such requests than their counterparts in state court, defense attorneys say.

Jury selection in Lyons' federal trial is set to begin April 7. That is one week after Lyons' scheduled sentencing on his state convictions, set for March 31.

Irvin was at Lyons' first news conference in July 1997 when the president of the National Baptist Convention USA Inc. addressed allegations of infidelity that his wife, Deborah, raised when she set fire to the Tierra Verde house Lyons co-owned with Bernice V. Edwards.

Irvin has been a fixture at Lyons' side for the state and federal criminal proceedings, but also for civil matters and the many meetings involving NBC officials and the defense of Lyons' presidency. Irvin attended Lyons' church and became his prayer partner.

In his motion Wednesday, Irvin wrote that the burden of representing Lyons in state court had drastically affected his law practice.

Irvin also wrote that his relationship with Lyons has been strained by another attorney's "questionable" advice, which Lyons has followed. Irvin's motion does not name the attorney or provide specifics about the advice.

"The reality is that the undersigned is not Defendant's "choice' of federal trial counsel," Irvin wrote.

Irvin and Lyons could not be reached for comment.

While a team of lawyers represented Lyons in the state case, Irvin is the only attorney to have entered a general appearance on behalf of Lyons in federal court. Doing so can be a binding act, lawyers say.

In general, said John Fitzgibbons, a criminal defense attorney in Tampa, "once you enter an appearance in a case, you are in the case for life."

While state court judges are relatively liberal in allowing lawyers to withdraw, Fitzgibbons said, federal judges enjoy more discretion and tend to enforce the federal court's rules strictly.

"Simply an economic reason could make it very difficult to withdraw, particularly if the trial date is near," Fitzgibbons said. "On the other hand, if there are other problems, such as conflicts between lawyer and client, then the court might be more willing."

One of Irvin's fellow lawyers in the state case, Denis de Vlaming, said he had spoken to Irvin and "Grady realized his representation in a two-month federal trial would be next to impossible without help or finances."

Lyons has long sought a second defense attorney for his federal charges, and the search continues, lawyers said. Lyons has asked de Vlaming to represent him in federal court. But de Vlaming, who is still owed $80,000 by Lyons for the state case, said, "It's going to be difficult for me to say yes."

This week, Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Susan Schaeffer set Lyons' sentencing for March 31. Under state guidelines, he faces from three to slightly more than eight years in prison.

What won't be known until sentencing is how quickly Schaeffer would order Lyons taken into custody after the sentence. The judge has the option of ordering Lyons to surrender to authorities immediately after sentencing, or at the end of his federal trial. Or the judge may grant an appeals bond, meaning he would be free while appealing his state conviction.

Lyons' attorneys this week also filed a motion for a new trial in part because of of an allegation of juror misconduct related to e-mails that were sent to local television stations on the day of the verdict.

Meanwhile, two groups of NBC members are planning to gather next week for separate meetings about the future of Lyons' presidency.

Lyons has called a special meeting of his board of directors for Tuesday at Lyons' Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church in St. Petersburg, where supporters are expected to call for a vote of confidence in Lyons.

Another group plans to gather at NBC's Baptist World Center headquarters in Nashville that same day to demand Lyons' immediate resignation.

"There are a number of us across the country who are more than disgusted with this mess," said the Rev. Kenneth T. Whalum, an NBC board member and pastor of Olivet Baptist Church in Memphis, Tenn.

"Our thing is not personal," he said of asking Lyons to resign. "It is time for us to look for the saving of the convention."

Times staff writers David Barstow, William R. Levesque and Waveney Ann Moore contributed to this report, which contains information from Times files.

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