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    Scientology is a key player in marijuana case

    The defense is bringing the church into the case, saying that the arrest was tied to the church's relentless surveillance of a critic, the defendant.

    By DEBORAH O'NEIL

    © St. Petersburg Times, published May 24, 2001


    LARGO -- Five lawyers helped fill the courtroom Wednesday in a misdemeanor trial that included poster-board-size charts, a video recording, expert scientific testimony, five other witnesses and repeated references to the Church of Scientology.

    After five hours of courtroom proceedings, the marijuana possession case against strident Scientology critic Jesse Prince still was not over at the end of the day. It continues today at 9:30 a.m.

    The elaborate case is over a single marijuana plant that the State Attorney's Office says was growing in a pot on Prince's lanai when an armed tactical team from the Largo Police Department searched his house on Aug. 11, 2000.

    Prosecutor Lydia Wardell told jurors the case is built on the work of a 20-year police veteran who acted on a tip and went undercover to investigate Prince.

    "That's it," she said. "That's the case. On three separate occasions law enforcement observed marijuana in the home of the defendant."

    But defense attorney Denis deVlaming said the case is really about the efforts of the Church of Scientology to discredit Prince, a former Scientologist who is a key witness in a wrongful-death lawsuit against the church.

    Displaying a flow chart with "Church of Scientology" written across the top in red, deVlaming outlined a web of connections between the church, its lawyers and their private investigators who were watching and trailing Prince every day for months, and eventually went to police with information that led to his arrest.

    "Every day the agents of the Church of Scientology are following the man, telling people by cell phone where he is, what he's doing, what they can expect," deVlaming said.

    He also showed the jury a video of Prince's arrest taken from across the street from his home. Officers arrested him Aug. 11 after searching his house at 7:30 a.m.

    "The significance of the tape is the police didn't make the tape. (A private investigator) was sitting outside the house. Let me tell you, police don't tell you when they execute a warrant," deVlaming said.

    Brian Raftery, the investigator who made the video, testified that he stopped near Prince's home the morning of the arrest after seeing police cars there. He said he was following Prince mostly for the security of the church staff and its parishioners.

    "The primary reason why I was surveilling Jesse Prince is his history of violence," Raftery said.

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