Bakker asks judge to grant lighter sentence

August 23, 1991|By Knight-Ridder News Service

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Jim Bakker shuffled into the courthouse in leg chains yesterday, an ignominious homecoming for the once-famous minister.

Bakker, the disgraced TV preacher who has spent nearly two years in prison in Rochester, Minn., was back in federal court seeking something more lenient than the 45-year sentence for defrauding his television-driven ministry of millions of dollars.

About 100 of his undeterred followers were there to welcome him, weeping and praying, although many were among the folks defrauded by the time-sharing scheme Bakker engineered at his Christian retreat and theme park.

They hugged and huddled around his wife, Tammy, her trademark blond hair now auburn, and filled every available courtroom seat. "We're hoping and praying that Jim will walk out of here a free man," said Lillian Williams, who drove from Jacksonville, Fla., for the resentencing.

In February, a federal appeals court upheld Bakker's conviction but threw out the 45-year prison sentence ordered by U.S. District Judge Robert Potter.

The appeals panel ruled that Bakker be resentenced by another judge because of Judge Potter's intemperate remarks at the original sentencing, at which Judge Potter spoke disparagingly of "money-grubbing preachers."

The first day of the resentencing hearing before Judge Graham Mullen unfolded yesterday like an abbreviated version of the original trial two years ago, in which Bakker was convicted of defrauding $150 million from his followers.

The prosecutors outlined how Bakker offered his TV congregation time-share rooms at Heritage U.S.A., selling twice as many shares as the park could accommodate. Videotapes were played showing Bakker pleading for money.

Prosecutors reminded Judge Mullen of the $265,000 payoff Bakker sent to church secretary Jessica Hahn to keep quiet about a sexual episode, while his ministry plummeted into bankruptcy.

His lawyers recalled evidence that they thought mitigated his $129 million fraud. They painted him as a hapless naif without criminal intent. "I see an extremely unsophisticated man, a man who talked too much, who was out of control," argued Yale law professor Alan Dershowitz, asking for a lighter sentence.

He said that as a condition of probation, Bakker would be willing to agree never to engage in fund-raising, solicitations or any of the activities for which he was convicted.

But Assistant U.S. Attorney Deborah Smith described Bakker as a man whose "ability to motivate became an ability to manipulate."

She told the judge not to be influenced by those who remained Bakker's supporters. "There has never been a successful con man that people didn't trust."

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