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A Times Editorial

A cry for justice

Despite a reversal in the autopsy report of Lisa McPherson, the state attorney still has an obligation to prosecute those his office believes to be responsible in her death in a Scientology hotel room.

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 3, 2000


The tragedy of Lisa McPherson's death in a Scientology hotel room has turned into a sad, convoluted mess that cries out for justice.

An unexplained reversal by Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner Joan Wood has prosecutors reviewing their case and raises questions about Wood's competence. Meanwhile, sworn statements by Scientologists paint a disturbing picture of McPherson's final days and raise this question: Why was no individual charged with a crime?

Under pressure from experts hired by the Church of Scientology, Wood quietly amended her autopsy report on Feb. 16. The manner of McPherson's death was changed from "undetermined" to "accident." Wood also removed one cause of death ("bed rest and severe dehydration") and added a new significant condition ("psychosis and history of auto accident").

While Wood's final diagnosis that McPherson died in 1995 from a blood clot that moved from her leg to her lung did not change, the new version was gleefully embraced by Scientology officials.

Facing two felony charges -- abuse of a disabled adult and practicing medicine without a license -- Scientology has spared no expense to cast doubt on the facts in the case. Church officials contend that the blood clot was caused by a bruise suffered in a minor automobile accident rather than McPherson's treatment during 17 days of forced isolation at the church's downtown Clearwater hotel. A Scientology press release called Wood's altered opinion "extremely significant and a huge development that dramatically affects the state's case."

Wood certainly surprised the state attorney's office. The new autopsy report is "something of major significance we need to review," said Assistant State Attorney Doug Crow.

Amid the doubt, this much is clear: Wood owes the residents of Pinellas County an explanation; and State Attorney Bernie McCabe still needs to prosecute those his office determines to be responsible in McPherson's suffering and death.

The medical examiner's policy of considering new, credible evidence is valid. But in the McPherson case, Wood either made a serious mistake on her original autopsy report or she let Scientology's unrelenting pressure weaken her resolve. Either choice raises doubts about Wood's competence, and because she has not responded to questions about the amended report, we are left to wonder.

No doubt remains that McPherson was ill served by her Scientology "caretakers."

Following a minor auto accident, McPherson acted strangely and was taken to a nearby hospital emergency room. Other Scientology members quickly retrieved her and placed her in a hotel room, where the psychotic woman was isolated, held down while being force-fed homemade concoctions and given prescribed medication without seeing a doctor. After 17 days, gaunt and unresponsive, McPherson was delivered to a hospital an hour away. When a doctor saw her, she was already dead.

McCabe chose to charge the Church of Scientology in Clearwater rather than individual church members. That decision raises questions after reading several Scientologists' sworn statements:

Alain Kartuzinski, a senior church staff member, ordered McPherson's isolation and authorized medication without a doctor's approval. Then he lied to police about his involvement.

Janis Johnson, a church medical officer and unlicensed doctor, was seen giving McPherson injections of a prescription muscle relaxant that had not been authorized by a doctor. She also lied to police.

David Houghton, a dentist, helped administer medication, including forcing crushed aspirin and Benadryl down her throat with a large syringe.

David Minkoff, a church member and doctor in Pasco County, prescribed drugs for McPherson over the phone without examining the patient. By the time he saw her, she was dead.

Changing a few words on the autopsy report does not change the tragic events that unfolded in a darkened Scientology hotel room. Whatever caused the blood clot that killed McPherson, timely medical care would have given her a chance to survive.

No matter how many experts the Church of Scientology hires or how much pressure they put on public officials, a jury should decide if someone committed a crime in the death of Lisa McPherson.

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