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Scientology to argue for dismissal of case

If the judge denies the church's request, the focus shifts to a five-week criminal trial scheduled in October.

By THOMAS C. TOBIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 4, 2000


Seventeen months after it was criminally charged in the death of Lisa McPherson, the Church of Scientology will have its first big day in court on Wednesday and a chance, it hopes, for vindication.

"The entire basis for the state's prosecution of this case has now collapsed," begins one of the many Scientology legal briefs arguing the case should be dismissed. The prosecution is grounded in "consuming prejudice" against Scientology, the church alleges.

Its leading argument for a dismissal: a February ruling by Medical Examiner Joan Wood, who now says McPherson died from an "accident" stemming from a knee bruise that led to a fatal blood clot in her left lung. Wood once blamed McPherson's death on "bed rest and severe dehydration" at Scientology's Fort Harrison Hotel in Clearwater, but has removed those words from the death certificate.

The church also argues that the prosecution violates Florida law and the U.S. Constitution.

Prosecutors, meanwhile, remain adamant that the church should stand trial for the actions of its Clearwater staffers, who tried for 17 days to nurse McPherson through a severe mental breakdown, but who also were present when she died at age 36 on the way to a distant hospital.

In the process, prosecutors say, the church abused McPherson and practiced medicine without a license.

Both sides have been "very persuasive" in their arguments so far, said Pinellas-Pasco Chief Judge Susan F. Schaeffer, who will hear the motion to dismiss.

Whatever her decision, it is sure to have an impact.

If Schaeffer denies the church's request, the focus shifts to a five-week criminal trial scheduled in October. Scientology officials have warned they would free their lawyers to mount an all-out defense that could end up "harming the credibility of many persons."

"If we start down that road," church official Mike Rinder said recently, "the result of it is going to be bad for the city" of Clearwater.

However, if Schaeffer dismisses the charges, Scientologists would heave a collective sigh of relief and begin to repair the church's damaged reputation.

Yet another scenario: Schaeffer could dismiss only one charge, setting up an October trial on a single felony count.

Since the charges were filed in November 1998, the church has quietly tried to convince local authorities that McPherson's death was accidental, not criminal.

While Wood has responded, the office of Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe has not.

The church argues that McCabe's office, blinded by bigotry, has twisted the caring and kindness of Scientology staffers into a story line that appears sinister. McPherson's treatment at the Fort Harrison, the church says, was based on sincerely held religious beliefs and was not the cause of her death.

Scientology's legal briefs refer to the Introspection Rundown, a procedure used on McPherson that attempts to calm a psychotic person with forced isolation, vitamins and Scientology counseling.

The church says the procedure is a religious practice that, under the First Amendment, cannot be interpreted or questioned by the courts.

On the day McPherson entered the Fort Harrison, she took off her clothes at the scene of a minor auto accident in Clearwater and was taken by paramedics to nearby Morton Plant Hospital for psychiatric treatment, which Scientologists abhor.

The church submitted to the court letters by McPherson indicating her disdain for "psyches," plus a Morton Plant release that shows she signed herself out.

Later at the Fort Harrison, however, McPherson remained deeply disturbed.

"So the church engaged in mild practices to prevent her from harming herself," Scientology argues. Church staffers "took care of her, cleaned up her urine, her feces, shaved her legs, bathed her, treated her like a baby, fed her, made sure she didn't starve, even when she spat food in her friends' faces and subjected them to physical abuse."

When a Scientology staffer used a syringe to force a mixture of aspirin, Benadryl and orange juice into McPherson's throat while others held her down, it was "spiritual sustenance," the church argues.

It was akin to giving mild medications to a relative inside the home, Scientology says.

But prosecutors argue that unlicensed Scientology staffers, who also gave McPherson a prescription sedative and injected her with a muscle relaxant, engaged in the improper practice of medicine.

The church argues the prosecution has harmed Scientology staffers and parishioners worldwide, illegally burdening their religious practice.

Their affidavits complain of death threats, bomb threats, lost business, personal slights, physical attacks and pranks -- all caused, they say, by McCabe's prosecution.

They accuse McCabe of "selective prosecution," citing what they say are more horrible deaths in Florida nursing homes that never were charged.

The church also objected to the prosecution's suggestion that Scientologists took McPherson to their hotel, not to help her but to avoid a public relations problem.

The church responds, saying its staffers are more sincere about their beliefs than religious workers in other faiths. Doug Crow, McCabe's chief assistant, said such arguments have nothing to do with the central issues in the case.

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