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Jim Bakker’s 45-Year Sentence Thrown Out On Appeal

February 12, 1991 GMT

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) _ The judge who gave Jim Bakker a 45-year prison term was influenced by his religious beliefs, said an appeals court that Tuesday ordered the former television evangelist resentenced.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond upheld Bakker’s 1989 conviction on 24 counts of mail fraud, wire fraud and conspiracy.

But the three-judge panel threw out the sentence because of remarks made by U.S. District Judge Robert D. Potter at the sentencing hearing in Charlotte, N.C. The court ordered that Bakker be resentenced by a different judge.

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″I am just delighted. 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 3/8‴ Bakker’s wife, Tammy Faye, said at her New Covenant Ministry Church near Orlando, Fla.

Bakker’s lawyers said they would try to get him released on bail until he is resentenced.

″I would think that common sense justice would require that. He should never have been incarcerated during this appeal,″ said attorney George T. Davis from San Francisco.

Bakker, who founded the PTL network, was sentenced to 45 years in prison and fined $500,000 on Oct. 24, 1989, for defrauding followers who bought partnerships in PTL’s Heritage USA vacation park and retreat in Fort Mill, S.C.

Bakker, who was taken away in leg irons after his sentencing, is serving his sentence at a federal prison in Rochester, Minn.

During the sentencing hearing, Potter 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 ruled Tuesday that judges cannot punish defendants for offending the judges’ 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. ″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.″

Bakker has not granted any interviews while in prison, and continued to refuse interviews after learning of the ruling Tuesday, said John Chreno, executive assistant to the warden at the Federal Medical Center in Rochester.

Tom Ashcraft, U.S. attorney for the Western District of North Carolina, said prosecutors were gratified that the conviction was upheld.

″We are especially pleased by the holding of the appeals court that the defendant’s rights at trial were ’meticulously observed,‴ he said. ″With respect to the sentencing issue, the government will withhold comment until the appropriate time in court.″

Mrs. Bakker said she had learned of the ruling in a telephone call from her crying daughter, Tammy Sue.

″Everyone is excited and we’re deeply grateful. And I believe that before this is over, Jim is going to be totally exonerated of all wrongdoing,″ Mrs. Bakker said.

Davis said the defense team would likely appeal the ruling on the conviction to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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 claims 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.

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.″