WASHINGTON — A federal appeals court Tuesday overturned TV evangelist Jim Bakker's 45-year prison sentence because it said the judge at his trial had displayed a personal religious bias against the defrocked founder of the PTL ministry.
But the court upheld Bakker's 24-count conviction for conspiring to defraud his followers.
Under federal sentencing guidelines now in effect, Bakker would have received a 10- to 12-year prison sentence for his crimes. But on Oct. 24, 1989, U.S. District Judge Robert Potter, known 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," Potter said of Bakker, "and those of us who do have a religion are ridiculed as being saps for money-grubbing preachers or priests."
Focusing on that one comment, a three-judge appeals panel in Richmond said Tuesday 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 try to get the defrocked evangelist released on bail until his new sentencing. He has been held for 16 months at a federal facility in Rochester, Minn.
"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'm just so excited today. I can't even talk and can't even think," Bakker's wife, Tammy Faye Bakker, said in a call to a Milwaukee radio station.
But Bakker won only a partial victory Tuesday. 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 Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker 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, people were promised once-a-year vacation lodging in perpetuity at the Heritage USA theme park near Charlotte.
But, instead of building 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 doghouse 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 named Jessica Hahn to keep her quiet about a 15-minute 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 of 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 Potter rejected 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 a mass suicide in Guyana.
Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, who gained fame by winning a murder acquittal for socialite Claus von Bulow, took on Bakker's case during the appeal, arguing that the new federal sentencing guidelines should have applied.
The new federal sentencing guidelines took effect on Nov. 1, 1987, but Potter said that they did not apply to Bakker because his crimes took place earlier.
But Dershowitz succeeded with his second contention: that the judge showed 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 Potter's) own sense of religious propriety has somehow been betrayed," the appeals court said.
"I hope this sends a message to judges about religious tolerance," Dershowitz said of Tuesday's decision. "This was an outrageous sentence. He (Bakker) was really being punished because he had a different religious perspective."
Dershowitz said that he would move to have a new judge appointed and to have Bakker released on bail. Bakker will be given credit for the time he has served and, if his new sentence is substantially lower, he could be released soon, Dershowitz said.