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Photos of McPherson autopsy stir new conflict

News organizations seek them, but for their own reasons, the Church of Scientology and the McPherson estate want the photos kept out of public view.

By THOMAS C. TOBIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 16, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- Now that the criminal case against the Church of Scientology is over, a judge must decide whether the public should have access to a key piece of evidence: the autopsy photos of Scientologist Lisa McPherson.

The church and McPherson's estate, normally at odds, joined forces Thursday to ask Pinellas-Pasco Chief Circuit Judge Susan F. Schaeffer to keep the photos under seal.

The church argued the photos could jeopardize its right to a fair trial in Tampa, where the estate has filed a wrongful death lawsuit contending Scientology is responsible for McPherson's 1995 death.

The two sides have been tangled in litigation for more than three years.

Ken Dandar, the estate's attorney, told Schaeffer the privacy rights of McPherson's family could be compromised if the public were to see the photos. He added he did not want to give the church any grounds for appeal.

Schaeffer denied both requests, saying she had no jurisdiction in the matter. The judge had presided over the 18-month criminal case in which Scientology's Clearwater operation was charged with abuse of a disabled adult and practicing medicine without a license in McPherson's death. State Attorney Bernie McCabe dropped the case Monday, citing problems with the testimony of Medical Examiner Joan Wood.

Schaeffer on Thursday agreed with lawyers for news organizations that the criminal case is defunct and the matter of the autopsy photos was improperly before her.

But she kept the photos under seal until the church and the estate could file lawsuits in Pinellas.

The church filed its lawsuit immediately after Thursday's hearing; Dandar is expected to do the same today. A Pinellas judge, perhaps Schaeffer herself, probably will decide the matter next week.

The photos became an issue after local news organizations requested copies of all records in the case when they became public Monday. McCabe's office and Clearwater police released thousands of pages of investigative documents, but withheld autopsy photos when the church and the estate requested a hearing.

Lawyers for the St. Petersburg Times, the Tampa Tribune and WFLA-Ch. 8 argued that potential damage to a person or an institution such as Scientology did not override the public's right to see public records.

Schaeffer looked at the autopsy photographs from the bench and described them in open court. Echoing Scientology's attorneys, she said some of the natural changes that occur in a body after death could be misconstrued by the public. She said local newspapers probably would not publish them, but worried that they might be displayed on the Internet.

"That does give you some concerns," she said.

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