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Lawyers debate church's claims

Attorneys for Scientologists say a medical examiner's report exonerates them in Lisa McPherson's death.

By THOMAS C. TOBIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 6, 2000


photo
[Times photo: Boyzell Hosey]
David Miscavige, making a rare public appearance, listens during the hearing.

ST. PETERSBURG -- Pinellas prosecutors are standing by their allegation that Lisa McPherson suffered severe dehydration before she died in the care of Church of Scientology staffers in Clearwater.

That alone is enough to allege "great bodily harm" and sustain a charge that the church abused McPherson, prosecutors said at an all-day hearing Wednesday that demonstrated why lawyers for both sides are calling this case one of the more unusual they've seen.

The hearing in downtown St. Petersburg included a rare public appearance by Scientology's Los Angeles-based leader David Miscavige, who huddled with the church's lawyers at breaks and passed them notes during the proceedings. Behind him: an estimated 200 local Scientologists, many of whom have written affidavits saying the prosecution of Scientology has burdened the practice of their religion. The overflow crowd spilled into a second courtroom where they watched the hearing on TV.

At issue is Scientology's motion to dismiss two felony charges against the church in McPherson's death.

Throughout the day there was confusion and disagreement about what Medical Examiner Joan Wood would testify to if the case should ever go to trial.

In most death cases, the medical examiner's testimony is the final word on the cause of death. But here, Wood has changed her conclusions more than a year into the prosecution. Adding to the confusion, the doctor who conducted the autopsy on McPherson -- now an ex-employee of Wood's who left on bad terms -- disputes many of her findings.

Pinellas-Pasco Chief Circuit Judge Susan F. Schaeffer called the situation "highly unusual" and wondered aloud whether prosecutors could ever get their case to a jury.

The allegation of severe dehydration came from Chief Assistant State Attorney Doug Crow, despite a February ruling by Wood that McPherson's death was an "accident" caused by a blood clot that traveled from her left knee to a lung. Previously, Wood ruled McPherson's death was caused by "bed rest and severe dehydration." But those words now are gone from the death certificate.

Crow said he was perplexed by Wood's new ruling and said his office is reviewing whether it still has a case. Until then, however, it appears he intends to press the prosecution.

Crow told Schaeffer that Wood "continues to indicate" that McPherson's 1995 death was the result of medical neglect at Scientology's Fort Harrison Hotel, where church staffers tried for 17 days to nurse her through a severe mental breakdown.

Wood's "findings as to the severity of the dehydration remain unchanged," he said.

Scientology, however, says it has mountains of evidence proving McPherson was not dehydrated, including autopsy findings indicating most of her bodily functions were normal. Church attorneys told Schaeffer the case should be dismissed immediately because of Wood's new ruling.

But Schaeffer said the office of State Attorney Bernie McCabe needs to conduct the review just as carefully as it did before charging the church's Clearwater branch in November 1998 with two felonies, abuse of a disabled adult and practicing medicine without a license.

Scientology attorney Eric Lieberman argued that the church staffers who cared for McPherson were engaged in a religious practice called the Introspection Rundown, which attempts to quiet a psychotic person with isolation and vitamins followed by Scientology counseling.

The practice is protected from prosecution under the First Amendment and several Florida laws, Lieberman said. He also cited the state's Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which prohibits the government from significantly burdening the practice of religion.

Schaeffer questioned the argument, saying: "Your position is that your people can be as negligent as they want to be (without fear of prosecution) . . . and that's kind of a scary proposition."

But Lieberman responded they were acting in good faith and thus were not negligent. They worked around the clock to make sure McPherson didn't hurt herself, he said.

"This is abuse and neglect?" the veteran New York lawyer asked, his voice rising. "This is the opposite of abuse and neglect."

However, Crow said the evidence shows McPherson was watched by Scientologists who were ill-trained and ill-equipped to care for her and who failed to get medical help when she showed the "easily noticed" signs of serious illness, most notably dehydration and weakness.

Asked by Schaeffer why he didn't charge individual staffers instead of the church, Crow said it was difficult to tell which staffer was culpable.

"You have a confusing picture, but one thing is clear," he said. "Everything that was done was done by church employees."

The hearing continues today.

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