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Church wants judge removed in McPherson case

Questioning his impartiality, Scientology asks Judge Brandt C. Downey III to remove himself.

By THOMAS C. TOBIN and WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 3, 2000


LARGO -- The Church of Scientology says it fears Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Brandt C. Downey III cannot be impartial and is asking that he remove himself from presiding in the Lisa McPherson case.

In a motion filed late Thursday, Scientology asserts that several of Downey's former law partners were active in anti-Scientology efforts in the late 1970s and early 1980s, after the church's controversial arrival in Clearwater.

The motion also notes that Downey has been an officer in local mental health groups involved in providing psychiatric and psychological services. Scientology is staunchly opposed to psychiatry and psychology, calling its practitioners "psychs" who are "the sole cause of decline in this universe."

Scientology's Clearwater entity faces felony charges of practicing medicine without a license and abuse of a disabled adult in the case of McPherson, a Scientologist who died in 1995 while in the care of church staffers.

Downey was handed the case last month after the original judge, chief judge Susan F. Schaeffer, became ill.

A five-week trial is scheduled for October. However, prosecutors are reviewing whether they still have a case after a recent ruling by Medical Examiner Joan Wood that McPherson's death was an accident.

Reached Thursday night, Downey said he would address the church's request at a hearing this morning.

In its motion, the church says it recently discovered aspects of Downey's background that "reasonably cause it to fear that it will not receive fair treatment before the judge . . . because of his prejudice or bias against the Church of Scientology as well as its religious beliefs relating to mental health treatment."

The motion notes that those beliefs are central to the case. The church's defense is based in large part on an argument that staffers who cared for McPherson were engaged in religious practices rooted in the notion that psychiatry and psychology are harmful.

According to the motion, Downey once belonged to a small Clearwater law firm that included attorneys N. David Karones, Tom Hersem and Barry Glenn.

As a former president of the Greater Clearwater Chamber of Commerce, Karones participated in a 1979 resolution calling for an official investigation into the church, the motion stated.

Hersem and Glenn, it said, both represented people requesting refunds from the church in the early 1980s.

In addition, Downey has been active in the Foundation for Mental Health, the Pinellas-Pasco District 5 Mental Health Board and the Mental Health Association of Pinellas County, the church said.

Noting its opposition to psychiatry and psychology, the church argued that it is "entitled to a fair trial conducted by a judge who is not only unbiased and impartial but who does not give even the appearance of bias and prejudice."

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