A federal appeals court Tuesday upheld former televangelist Jim Bakker's fraud and conspiracy convictions but threw out his 45-year sentence because of remarks made by the trial judge.
A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Bakker was fairly tried and convicted of 24 counts of wire fraud, mail fraud and conspiracy in 1989 but must be resentenced."I'm just so excited today, I can't even talk and can't even think," Bakker's wife, Tammy Faye, told a Milwaukee radio station. "Needless to say, our family is grateful and excited today."
The founder of the PTL Network was sentenced to 45 years in prison and fined $500,000 for defrauding followers who bought partnerships in PTL's Heritage USA vacation park and retreat in Fort Mill, S.C.
But the appeals court said U.S. District Judge Robert D. Potter of Charlotte, N.C., abused his discretion and violated Bakker's due process rights with his remarks at sentencing.
During the hearing, the judge 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 said judges cannot punish defendants for offending their 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.
"Regrettably, we are left with the apprehension that 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," Wilkinson wrote.
The court ordered that Bakker be resentenced by a different judge.
Bakker has been serving his sentence at a federal prison in Rochester, Minn. A Bakker lawyer said a motion would be filed to get him freed on bail pending the resentencing.
Mrs. Bakker has lived in Florida since her husband went to prison, conducting services at New Covenant Ministries near Orlando.