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Scientology's defense impresses judge

Promising a decision in a month, she questions the state's criminal charges against the church over a member's death.

By THOMAS C. TOBIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 7, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- After listening to legal arguments over two days, Pinellas-Pasco Chief Circuit Judge Susan F. Schaeffer said Thursday she will take a month to decide whether to dismiss the criminal case against the Church of Scientology.

She also expressed support for key arguments raised by the church, which is defending itself against two charges in the 1995 death of Lisa McPherson.

Schaeffer said she's convinced McPherson consented to go with fellow Scientologists to the church's Fort Harrison Hotel, where church staffers tried over 17 days to help her through a severe mental breakdown.

She also said it is obvious that individual Scientologists have been hurt by allegations against the church, a point Scientology uses to argue that prosecutors are illegally burdening the practice of religion.

On a recent visit to downtown Clearwater, Schaeffer said, she saw pickets protesting McPherson's death. "I felt sad for the parishioners that they had to see that," she said. "I'm sure that was very hurtful for them."

The judge also questioned the prosecution's decision to charge the whole church rather than one or more of the staffers who cared for McPherson.

"Let's assume I disagree with you," Schaeffer told prosecutor Doug Crow, beginning a line of questioning. "I don't know if I do or not. But I think I do, quite frankly."

After the hearing, church spokeswoman Pat Jones stood in the bright light of several television cameras and confidently predicted the church would win its motion to dismiss the case.

The church, however, took its share of lumps from Schaeffer, who grilled defense attorney Lee Fugate.

The judge noted that the Scientology "case supervisor" who oversaw McPherson's care was untrained in medicine, yet still had authority over the medically trained staffers who looked in on her.

"That's going to sound real bad to a jury," Schaeffer said.

She also expressed irritation that none of the staffers with medical training had licenses. With all of Scientology's resources, she said, "couldn't they have had a licensed physician there?"

Schaeffer added: "I bet if you had somebody trained and licensed, none of us would be here. Just a thought."

Fugate disclosed that the case has prompted the church to arrange for a licensed doctor to be on call at the church's facilities in downtown Clearwater. He also said local hospitals, including Morton Plant Hospital in Clearwater, have agreed to keep Scientologists with psychotic symptoms out of their psychiatric wards.

Because Scientologists strongly oppose psychiatry, church staffers did not take McPherson to Morton Plant earlier.

Instead, when she became ill, they drove her more than 45 minutes to a Pasco County hospital where a Scientologist doctor familiar with the church's doctrine had agreed to see her. She died en route.

Crow, the prosecutor, said the consequences and bad publicity from the prosecution do not restrict Scientologists' legal right to practice their religion, as church members allege. The church, he said, created its own burden by committing crimes, namely abuse of a disabled adult and practicing medicine without a license. "We believe we have the right to hold them accountable," Crow said.

The state had no choice but to charge the church because Scientology staffers lied, changed their accounts and kept shifting blame, making individual prosecutions impossible, Crow said.

But Scientology lawyer Eric Lieberman said the state's inability to prosecute individuals is no reason to charge the church. That is not the "least restrictive means" of dealing with the situation, under the state's Religious Freedom Restoration Act, he said.

McPherson's death is "an internal situation between the church and its members," Lieberman said. "They do not need or want the state to protect them from their church."

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