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Scientologists fail to budge judge

The church says the judge's associations with mental health groups could compromise his objectivity.

By THOMAS C. TOBIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 4, 2000


LARGO -- Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Brandt C. Downey III ruled Friday that the Church of Scientology's fears about an unfair trial are unfounded and that he will continue to preside in the criminal case against it.

Immediately after the ruling, Scientology lawyer Morris "Sandy" Weinberg asked Downey to stop the case completely until the judge's ruling could be appealed. Downey quickly denied the request, advising Weinberg to be ready for a significant hearing March 13.

The case concerns Lisa McPherson, who died in 1995 while in the care of local Scientology staffers trying to nurse her through a severe mental breakdown. The church's Clearwater entity has been charged with two felonies in her death -- abusing a disabled adult and practicing medicine without a license.

In a motion filed Thursday, the church had argued that Downey's past associations with mental health groups and with three former law partners who once criticized Scientology could compromise his objectivity as the case proceeds toward a scheduled October trial.

The mental health groups are an issue for the church because they promote the practices of psychiatry and psychology, which Scientologists believe are harmful.

Weinberg faced a delicate task Friday morning, asking Downey to step down while trying not to offend him. His arguments were laced with phrases such as, "with all due respect."

In its motion, the church noted Downey's affiliations with Clearwater lawyers N. David Karones, Tom Hersem and Barry Glenn, each of whom was pitted against Scientology on various issues during the late 1970s and early 1980s.

The motion also stated that Downey had been involved with the Foundation for Mental Health, the Pinellas-Pasco District 5 Mental Health Board and the Mental Health Association of Pinellas County, all of which support the practices of psychiatry and psychology.

Weinberg said the church believes its fundamental beliefs are on trial. He noted that the church's defense is based in large part on the argument that the Scientologists who cared for McPherson were engaged in religious practices rooted in the avoidance of psychiatry and psychology.

But prosecutor Doug Crow argued that one's beliefs on psychiatry and psychology should not be a bench mark for presiding over the trial, lest all non-Scientologists be excluded. He also said the church's efforts to link Downey's mind-set to the actions of his onetime law partners were based on hearsay. "This is guilt by association, innuendo and speculation," Crow said.

Weinberg was met with a testy response from Downey, who denied the motion, saying the church had no evidence that "would place a reasonably prudent person in fear of not receiving a fair and impartial trial."

The judge was equally short with lawyers for the Times and Tampa Tribune, who asked Downey to release investigative records in the case. Downey said the lawyers made it sound like he rushed to judgment on a ruling last week that kept the records closed."That does not sit well at all," the judge said, denying their requests.

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