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Records outline Scientology case
By THOMAS C. TOBIN
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 26, 2000
CLEARWATER -- The records came in unrelenting batches.
Medical studies, scientific research, sworn testimony and more -- thousands of pages from the Church of Scientology that Medical Examiner Joan Wood considered over five months before changing her ruling in the 1995 death of Lisa McPherson.
Wood refuses to say what finally tipped the scale, prompting her to rule last month that McPherson's death was an accident. But records from her office examined by the St. Petersburg Times show she reviewed a wide array of materials seriously challenging her original conclusion that McPherson had died from a blood clot in her lung caused by "bed rest and severe dehydration."
The volume and scope of the records also reveal the lengths to which Scientology has gone to defend itself against criminal charges in McPherson's death -- charges it contends are threatening its reputation and viability, not only in Clearwater but throughout the world.
In making its case to Wood, Scientology hammered on several points:
A blood clot in the lung, known as a pulmonary embolism, is a common killer. The church studied 369 pulmonary embolism deaths in Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties from 1990 to 1997, finding all but eight were ruled natural or accidental deaths. Most of the eight involved shootings, stabbings or other violence.
The public perception that McPherson was emaciated and lost as much as 40 pounds while in the care of Scientology staffers in Clearwater is unsupported and incorrect. According to church experts and a Morton Plant Hospital doctor who saw McPherson just before she entered Scientology's Fort Harrison Hotel, McPherson already was thin with protruding cheek bones. Also, Robert D. Davis, the pathologist who conducted the autopsy for Wood's office, concluded McPherson's body was of "average nutritional status."
The fatal blood clot came not from dehydration but from a bruise McPherson had received in a minor auto accident before her 17-day stay at the Fort Harrison. A study by forensic experts hired by the church concluded the bruise matched the shape of the door handle on McPherson's 1993 Jeep Cherokee.
Lab results on sodium levels in McPherson's eye fluid were too high to be credible and did not jibe with other findings in the autopsy. Wood used the eye fluid results to make her initial ruling of severe dehydration and announce to the media that McPherson was comatose. But Davis, who left Wood's office before the autopsy report was done, found that other body organs showed no signs of severe dehydration.
The church sent Wood a variety of medical literature and sworn testimony that it says proves the eye fluid samples were improperly handled by Wood's office, incompetently tested at an independent lab and ultimately contaminated.
A technician at the lab explains how a bad reading on her testing machine prompted her to dilute the eye fluid with water, stir it and calculate the result herself, without the machine.
The church also said it contacted the manufacturer of the machine and found it was designed to test blood products, not eye fluid.
The church's strategy is reminiscent of the O.J. Simpson murder case in 1995 when defense attorneys meticulously picked away at the handling of blood samples and other forensic evidence, creating doubt among jurors.
In the McPherson case, however, the all-out attack on the state's medical evidence is occurring well ahead of a trial. The church's Clearwater entity was charged in 1998 with abuse of a disabled adult and practicing medicine without a license, both felonies.
One church official, asked recently to put a price tag on the defense so far, called it "enormous."
The stakes for Scientology apparently are high. In a recent court filing, the church contends the prosecution puts an unconstitutional burden on a religion, arguing in part that the case might even threaten its cherished and hard-won tax-exempt status from the IRS.
The records reviewed by the Times suggest Wood, who has been medical examiner since 1982, did not change her decision lightly.
She marked many of the church's materials with scribbled words and underlines, often pointedly disagreeing with Scientology's arguments.
In places, she wrote "No!" or "specious" to cut down Scientology's points. Responding to one church argument with a scrawled note, Wood wrote, "This is not rocket science."
Eventually, however, she changed the manner of McPherson's death from "undetermined" to "accident." She removed "bed rest and severe dehydration" as a cause of death. Instead, she blamed a bruise on McPherson's left knee, concluding it led to a fatal blood clot that eventually lodged in the left lung.
Wood would not comment for this story. But, in response to a Times public records request, her office produced the records she considered before reaching her decision.
Public records also reveal she called on unnamed "other experts" not connected to the church.
Wood's new ruling has forced prosecutors to review whether they still have a case. The church, meanwhile, is using the ruling as its lead argument to have the case dismissed. A hearing on that issue is scheduled April 5 before Chief Circuit Judge Susan F. Schaeffer.
When and why did Wood change her mind?
The records offer only clues.
They suggest that Wood, as late as December, was holding to her opinion that McPherson became severely dehydrated while in the church's care.
Six days before she changed her ruling, the church sent her its consultant's findings on McPherson's auto accident.
Assistant State Attorney Doug Crow, the lead prosecutor on the case, declined to comment.
Marty Rathbun, a top Scientology official, said the church could have waited until a trial to bring forth the evidence. But that would have harmed "the credibility of many persons in a fashion that would have made them appear incompetent to the community," he said.
Instead, the church took a quieter, more "responsible" course, he said. "Our view is if a mistake has been made, we'd want somebody to tell us so that we could correct it. . . . Our goal was not to discredit the medical examiner or show how unfounded the state's investigation was."
© St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.