Bakker guilt is affirmed, but sentence overturned

February 13, 1991|By Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- A federal appeals court overturned TV evangelist Jim Bakker's 45-year prison sentence yesterday, saying that the judge at his trial had displayed a personal, religious bias against the defrocked founder of the PTL ministry.

But the court also upheld Bakker's 24-count conviction for conspiring to defraud his followers.

Under federal sentencing guidelines now in effect, Bakker would receive a 10- to 12-year prison sentence for his crimes. But on Oct. 24, 1989, U.S. District Judge Robert Potter, known locally in Charlotte, N.C., as "Maximum Bob," sentenced Bakker to 45 years and fined him $500,000.

"He had no thought whatever of his victims," Judge Potter said of Bakker, "and those of us who do have a religion are ridiculed LTC as being saps for money-grubbing preachers or priests."

Focusing on that one comment, a three-judge appellate panel in Richmond, Va., said yesterday that "with genuine reluctance," it must grant Bakker a new sentencing hearing.

The courts may not be used "as a pulpit from which judges announce their personal sense of religiosity and simultaneously punish defendants for offending it," said Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III.

Bakker's attorneys said that they will move to have a new judge appointed and that they will try to get the defrocked evangelist released on bail until his new sentencing.

Bakker has been held 16 months at a federal facility in Rochester, Minn. He will be given credit for the time he has served, and if his sentence is substantially shorter he could be released soon, his lawyers said.

"I never doubted from the moment he was sentenced that it would be reversed," said San Francisco attorney George T. Davis, who represented Bakker during the trial. "He was tried and convicted in a lynch-mob atmosphere."

"I am just delighted," Bakker's wife, Tammy Faye Bakker, said at her New Covenant Ministry Church near Orlando, Fla. "I just talked to my husband, and the whole prison was excited for him. He was in a no-smoking class, and they broke in on the middle of the class and said, 'Jim, Jim, you've won part of your appeal!' "

Bakker won only a partial victory yesterday. His attorney had contended that Bakker's guilty verdict also should be overturned because both the judge and the jury were prejudiced against the TV minister.

But the appeals court unanimously affirmed the conviction and praised Judge Potter for having "meticulously observed" Bakker's rights during the trial.

In the late 1980s, the trials and tribulations of the Bakkers illustrated both the power of TV evangelism and the potential for corruption.

Relying on a regular sales pitch on his TV program, Bakker collected at least $158 million from followers between 1984 and 1987. In exchange for $1,000 payments, they were promised once-a-year vacation lodging in perpetuity at the "Heritage USA" theme park near Charlotte.

But instead of building new facilities to accommodate the visitors, Bakker used the money to buy homes, limousines and private jets, gold-plated plumbing fixtures, "an air-conditioned tree house for his children and an air-conditioned dog house for his pets," the appeals court noted.

Bakker's empire began to crumble in 1987 when it was revealed that he had paid $265,000 to a former church secretary, Jessica Hahn, to keep her quiet about a sexual encounter.

During the trial, Bakker's attorneys said that the minister may have gone "off the track" but that he remained "a man of love, character and compassion." Federal prosecutors called him "one the biggest con men ever to come this way."

Typically, white-collar criminals are granted bail immediately after their convictions and before their sentences. But Judge Potter refused that request, saying that Bakker had a "Jim Jones mentality," a reference to the "People's Temple" minister who in 1978 led 913 of his followers into mass suicide in Guyana.

Harvard Law School Professor Alan Dershowitz, who gained fame by winning a murder acquittal for socialite Claus Von Bulow, took on Bakker's case during the appeal.

The new guidelines took effect Nov. 1, 1987, but Judge Potter said that they did not apply to Bakker because his crimes had taken place earlier. The appeals court upheld that judgment yesterday.

But Mr. Dershowitz succeeded with his second contention -- that the judge had shown bias against Bakker.

"Regrettably, we are left with the apprehension that the imposition of a lengthy prison term here may have reflected the fact [that Judge Potter's] own sense of religious propriety has somehow been betrayed," the appeals court said.

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