PTL founder Jim Bakker's waffling testimony combined with a skillful job by prosecutors to convict the TV evangelist of defrauding thousands of loyal supporters who sent him $158 million, court observers say.
"What the prosecutors did was masterful," said Charlotte lawyer Mike Scofield, a former federal prosecutor who watched the trial closely. "They simplified and clarified what could have been a very difficult and confusing case."Ken Andreson, another former assistant U.S. attorney, said prosecutors Deborah Smith and Jerry Miller did their homework before bringing Bakker to federal court.
"They were very adept at using Bakker's own statements to their maximum advantage," he said. "They cast him in the light they wanted the jurors to see him."
Following a day and a half of deliberations, a jury Thursday convicted the former PTL leader of all 24 counts of mail fraud, wire fraud and conspiracy. Prosecutors accused him of diverting $3.7 million of the $158 million sent in for PTL partnerships to his own use.
Bakker faces maximum penalties of 120 years in prison and more than $5 million in fines when he is sentenced Oct. 24.
The evangelist, who posted $250,000 bond and returned to his home in Orlando, Fla., planned to address his followers at a church service there Sunday, Don Baldwin, acting general manager of Jim and Tammy Ministries, said Saturday.
More than 50 loyal Bakker supporters were among the 75 witnesses called by defense attorneys Harold Bender and George T. Davis. Many of the character witnesses acknowledged under cross-examination that no facts that came up in the trial could alter their view of Bakker.
Defense witness Ken Coppersmith reflected their bitterness at the verdict: "There's freedom and justice for all - except Jim Bakker."
Other supporters accused U.S. District Judge Robert Potter, a conservative Reagan appointee, of bias against their hero. After the verdict, Potter had said he hesitated to release Bakker on bail because he believed some Bakker followers had a "Jim Jones mentality."
Scofield and Andreson praised Potter and the prosecutors for maintaining control of a trial that often resembled a soap opera. It featured a hurricane-caused blackout, Bakker praying for a fainting witness and suffering an emotional breakdown, and his tearful wife, Tammy Faye, reacting to the verdict by singing gospel.
Juror Barbara Dalley said Bakker hurt himself when he took the stand as the last defense witness.
"He contradicted so many other witnesses' testimony," she said. "None of us believed he was telling the truth."
Prosecutors portrayed Bakker as a con man who lied on TV to get people to send him money. During the nearly six-week trial, they called more than 100 witnesses but never strayed far from their focus on the fraud case's victims, PTL's faithful "lifetime partners."
From 1984-87, nearly 153,000 people became partners, typically by sending in $1,000 in return for a promise of three free nights of lodging each year for life at PTL's 2,400-acre Christian retreat in nearby Fort Mill, S.C.
With the help of Ms. Smith, a Justice Department fraud specialist, and Miller, an assistant U.S. attorney, the jurors were able to associate the specific wire and mail fraud charges with individual victims.
One count focused on the plight of retired coal miner Lamar Kerstetter, who suffers from black lung disease.
Asked what he expected in return for his $1,000, the resident of Shamokin, Pa., responded: "My four days and three nights."
Andreson said the government was able to dispel the public image Bakker built through years of TV appearances heralding family values on his Christian talk show.