Bishop Anthony Jinwright, the 54-year-old Greater Salem Church pastor who lived lavishly while his west Charlotte church struggled to pay its bills, was sentenced to eight years and nine months in federal prison for conspiracy and tax evasion. His wife and co-pastor, Harriet Jinwright, 51, was sentenced to six years and eight months.
Under federal law, each must serve at least 85 percent of that time behind bars.
U.S. District Judge Frank Whitney issued the ruling about 10 p.m. Thursday after a grueling, two-day marathon that included more than 20 hours of testimony, character witnesses and sometimes-contentious wrangling between opposing lawyers.
In the end, Whitney said, the case was not about “faith or religion,” “was not an attack on individuals or a community’s beliefs,” “was not about race” and was not about “individual gifts by loving people” to their pastors.
“This case is about income from an employer to an employee,” he said.
Failure to report income
According to an IRS agent who testified, the Jinwrights failed to report more than $2.3 million in income between 1991 and 2008. Based on those calculations, the agent said, the couple failed to pay $1.4 million in state and federal taxes.
In addition to prison time, the Jinwrights were ordered to serve three years probation upon their release and to pay $1.2 million to the federal government.
The Jinwrights, who had little courtroom interaction with one another over the previous two days, showed no emotions as their sentences were read.
Whitney said he would recommend that Anthony Jinwright be assigned to the Butner federal prison in North Carolina and that Harriet Jinwright be assigned to the Alderson prison in West Virginia. However, he said, those decisions ultimately rest with the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
Pleas for leniency
Before sentencing the couple, Whitney said he detected a sense of remorse from Harriet Jinwright but none from her husband.
“Bishop Jinwright is the definition of ‘good people can do bad things,’” he said.
Each had asked the judge for leniency.
Anthony Jinwright, jailed immediately after his May 3 conviction, told the judge how he hoped to travel the country warning other pastors about the need to hire qualified bookkeepers and accountants and of the need to follow their suggestions and tax law.
Harriet Jinwright thanked Greater Salem members for allowing her to serve as their leader, then added, “I want to apologize for any misleadings.” She also thanked her lawyers.
Harriet Jinwright’s lawyer informed the judge that his client has knee-replacement surgery scheduled for January and said she would need months to recuperate. Whitney ordered her to report to prison in April.
Support for the Jinwrights remained
Although some Greater Salem members left the church amid the Jinwrights’ legal problems and revelations of their spending, the co-pastors retained a close-knit group of supporters. On the first day of the couple’s sentencing hearing, some arrived at the uptown courthouse wearing black sweatshirts emblazoned with the phrase “MIRACLE on the 8th,” a reference to the Dec. 8 start of the sentencing hearing.
Late Thursday, as lawyers and the judge hammered out legal issues, a group of supporters huddled in a hallway to form what appeared to be a prayer circle.
Reaction to the sentencing was generally muted, a stark contrast to reaction that followed the guilty verdicts in May, when Greater Salem members wept bitterly outside the courthouse.
“They’re my pastors, and I believe in them,” church member Raymond Moore was quoted as saying in Charlotte Observer. “They’re not criminals.”
Busy preacher or criminal intent?
At the heart of the Jinwright case was whether or not the couple actually intended to defraud the government.
Jinwright lawyers conceded early that tax errors were made. But those errors, the lawyers said, were honest mistakes, not attempts to evade taxes.
At Thursday’s sentencing hearing, Ed Hinson, one of the lawyers representing Anthony Jinwright, described his client as a pastor who, to his own detriment, was often too busy to concern himself with complex tax law.
“He was a constantly moving person who had a lot of things to do and a lot of things he was passionate about,” Hinson said. “Part of our difficulty with him was getting him to realize the peril he was in because he was busy.”
Hinson later added that Anthony Jinwright “believes in miracles, believes in miraculous outcomes. That is dangerous.”
Jinwrights must pay restitution
In addition to prison time, Whitney ordered the Jinwrights to pay restitution.
Anthony Jinwright was ordered to pay $1,064,890 to the IRS and $213,666 to the N.C. Department of Revenue.
Harriet Jinwright was ordered to pay $961,255 to the IRS and $213,666 to the N.C. Department of Revenue. She also must pay legal expenses to cover the cost of her public defender.
An official in the U.S. attorney’s office on Friday described the restitution as “joint and separate liability.” In other words, the most they must pay as a couple, she said, is $1.2 million.
If Anthony Jinwright cannot pay his portion for any reason, his wife would be responsible for no more than $961,255, and if Harriet Jinwright could not pay her portion for any reason, her husband would be responsible for no more than $1,064,890.
Whitney said he understood that the Jinwrights are incapable of repaying the amounts immediately, but he ordered the couple to begin repayment from prison. And within 60 days of their release, he said, each must begin repaying $500 a month.
Although restitution to Greater Salem was discussed, Whitney decided against it, saying the church did not consider itself a victim.
Lawyers for the couple said during the trial that their clients were effectively broke and were looking to sell all assets, including two A.L. Jinwright Funeral Homes.
A trial, but also a public event
From its inception, the Jinwright case has fixated Charlotte’s black, church-going community. Preachers referenced it from their pulpits and congregants hung on each new development. In the offices of some Charlotte employers, groups formed daily around computers to discuss breaking events.
Qcitymetro.com, the only media outlet that covered the trial in full, received calls from interested followers as far away as New Jersey, Florida, Georgia and Chicago. Each new posting generated hundreds of reader comments.
On Thursday night, as the community awaited word of sentencing, some online readers wrote that they were monitoring several websites and flipping from one television station to another, eager to get the latest word.
“I should be on the treadmill trying to get my workout in but, I’m glued to my netbook…” one reader posted on Qcitymetro.com.
“Why am I sitting here with 5 different web pages open at the same time? Each one to a (different) TV station website waiting to see which one will report the news first. Every other minute I’m refreshing them,” said another.
The black church under a spotlight
As much as anything, the Jinwright trial was, at least in the black community, a referendum on an historic and sacred institution – the African American Church. It also touched on another sensitive nerve – the growing visibility of wealthy pastors.
The Jinwright indictments spelled out in detail how the couple leased luxury cars – BMWs, Mercedes-Benzes, Lexuses and a Bentley – sometimes at church expense. Then there were the expensive vacations and frequent offerings collected for the couple. All the while, witnesses testified, Greater Salem was struggling to pay its bills.
Court documents revealed that some of the Jinwrights’ 2007 expenditures included: about $178,000 for eight vehicles; $4,000 for car wash expenses; $311,000 for their two homes; $4,000 in lawn care; nearly $3,000 for Time Warner Cable and DirecTV; and more than $4,000 for house-cleaning expenses.
Witnesses testified during the trial that the Jinwrights also routinely collected “love offerings” from Greater Salem members, sometimes taking the cash home in bags.
Much of that money went unreported on tax returns, the government alleged.
Public perception unfavorable
Despite the government’s insistence that the case was not about religion or the Jinwright’s lifestyle, Anthony Jinwright’s lawyer suggested Thursday that public perception played a role.
“On some level, he’s been tried for the way he lived,” Hinson told Judge Whitney. “If it’s a crime to be a poor financial steward and live beyond your means, then there are a lot of people who should go to jail with him… I ask you not to make him a scapegoat for the financial sins of excess.”
Viewed through a lens of the current economic downturn, Hinson said, the Jinwrights’ former lifestyle may seem opulent. But at the time, he said, the entire nation was riding high.
“He should not be the poster child who gets nailed to the wall, especially in light of all the good he’s done,” Hinson said of his client.
A secular ruling
Just before he sentenced the Jinwrights, the judge held up what he described as a two-inch stack of letters he had received from interested individuals.
He said the law is secular in nature and could not consider any spiritual elements of the case. He acknowledged that the Jinwrights had been generous and loving spiritual leaders, often paying tuitions, light bills and rent for hurting people.
“What’s troubling,” he said, “is what I will call the Robin Hood defense. It’s very easy to give away other people’s money, and that did happen in this case.”
Whitney said that he had never attended an African American church service but understood the definition of fraud.
“I do not believe either defendant will ever commit tax fraud again,” he said.
This story was reported by Rhi Bowman and written by Qcitymetro.com editor Glenn Burkins. The Charlotte Observer contributed.
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