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Appeals Court Throws Out Bakker Sentence

February 12, 1991

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) _ A federal appeals court today upheld former television evangelist Jim Bakker’s fraud and conspiracy convictions, but threw out his 45-year sentence because of remarks made by the trial judge.

A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Bakker was fairly tried and convicted of 24 counts of wire fraud, mail fraud and conspiracy in October 1989 but must be resentenced.

″I’m just so excited today, I can’t even talk and can’t even think,″ Bakker’s wife, Tammy Faye, told a Milwaukee radio station. ″Needless to say, our family is grateful and excited today.″

The founder of the PTL Network was sentenced Oct. 24, 1989, to 45 years in prison and fined $500,000 for defrauding followers who bought partnerships in PTL’s Heritage USA vacation park and retreat in Fort Mill, S.C. He began his prison sentence immediately.

But the appeals court said U.S. District Judge Robert D. Potter of Charlotte, N.C., abused his discretion and violated Bakker’s due process rights with his remarks at sentencing.

During the hearing, the judge said Bakker ″had no thought whatever about his victims and those of us who do have a religion are ridiculed as being saps (for) money-grubbing preachers or priests.″

The appeals court said judges cannot punish defendants for offending their personal religious beliefs.

″Whether or not the trial judge has a religion is irrelevant for purposes of sentencing,″ said the opinion written by Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III and joined by Judges J. Dickson Phillips Jr. and John D. Butzner Jr.

″Regrettably, we are left with the apprehension that the imposition of a lengthy prison term here may have reflected the fact that the court’s own sense of religious propriety had somehow been betrayed,″ Wilkinson wrote.

The court ordered that Bakker be resentenced by a different judge.

Bakker has been serving his sentence at a federal prison in Rochester, Minn. A Bakker lawyer said a motion would be filed to get him freed on bail pending the resentencing.

Mrs. Bakker has lived in Florida since her husband went to prison, conducting services at New Covenant Ministries near Orlando.

″My daughter just called, screaming, crying and saying, ‘Mom 3/8 Mom 3/8 Mom 3/8’ and so I didn’t hear exactly what happened until I just heard you talk about it just at this moment,″ Mrs. Bakker told Milwaukee radio station WTMJ-AM. She said she hoped to hear soon from her husband.

Bakker’s appeal was argued last October by Alan M. Dershowitz, a Harvard University law professor who joined the case after Bakker was convicted.

Dershowitz had also argued that Bakker’s sentence exceeded federal sentencing guidelines that took effect Nov. 1, 1987. But the court said the guidelines do not apply because the conspiracy began in 1982.

The court also rejected Bakker’s claim that his jury trial was tainted by publicity, that he was denied effective counsel, that two rulings on evidence were incorrect and that jury instruction were improper.

On the publicity charge, the court noted that Bakker made frequent appearances on national television shows before the trial.

″A defendant should not be allowed to manipulate the criminal justice system by generating publicity and then using that same publicity to support his claim that the media attention surrounding his case created a presumption of prejudice,″ the court said.

Dershowitz was in class today and could not be reached immediately for comment.

George T. Davis, one of Bakker’s attorneys, said the next step in the case probably will be a court hearing in Charlotte to set a date for resentencing.

At that hearing, ″counsel would have an opportunity to make a motion to have him released on bail until there is a new sentencing,″ Davis said. ″I would think that common-sense justice would require that. He should never have been incarcerated during this appeal.″

In a telephone interview from his office in San Francisco, Davis said he was not surprised that the sentence was thrown out.

″I said from the day the sentence was given, that that sentence was an outrageous abuse of process by the judge,″ he said.

″I’m surprised that the conviction wasn’t reversed,″ Davis said. ″The next real step is to go and take that matter up before the U.S. Supreme Court.″

In Charlotte, Scott Phillips, Potter’s law clerk, said the judge was out of the office because of surgery.

″He didn’t give any statements during the trial and he’s not going to give any now and our office won’t have any comment,″ Phillips said.

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