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Belief called irrelevant in death

Scientology cannot rely on an argument of spiritual assistance in Lisa McPherson's death, prosecutors argue.

By THOMAS C. TOBIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 7, 1999


The Church of Scientology in Clearwater cannot rely on religious grounds to escape prosecution in the death of one of its members, Pinellas-Pasco prosecutors argued in a strongly worded document filed Monday.

The document referred to the church's Clearwater entity as "a multifaceted non-profit corporation" that "engages in extensive revenue sharing activity" and generates "tremendous cash flow."

The wording aims to undercut an argument by church lawyers that Scientology staffers were giving "spiritual assistance" to parishioner Lisa McPherson when she died in their care in 1995.

The church is charged with felony counts of abusing a disabled adult and practicing medicine without a license. But it has argued that its care of McPherson was protected under the First Amendment and the state's Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

That means there can be no prosecution for McPherson's death, the church's lawyers have said. They also argued that no one -- not even a judge -- may question or inquire too closely about Scientology beliefs that formed the basis for McPherson's treatment.

They argued that the charges should be dismissed.

But prosecutors, seeking to have the charges stand, argued Monday that the term "church" usually refers to a "body of believers" or a place where worship occurs. They say neither applies at the Church of Scientology Flag Service Organization, the church's entity in Clearwater.

Flag, as it is called, sells self-improvement courses, hotel rooms for adherents to stay in and "assorted other items," prosecutors argued.

Flag also is distinct from the "body of adherents" who make up the Scientology religion, they said.

Eric Lieberman, a New York lawyer representing Scientology on First Amendment issues, called the argument "astonishing" and an exercise in "cute little word play."

He said Flag's facilities are an integral part of the religion and that this is recognized by the IRS and Florida's Department of Revenue, both of which regard Flag as a church.

The prosecution's document was filed by Executive Assistant State Attorney Doug Crow on behalf of State Attorney Bernie McCabe.

Lieberman said of McCabe: "He's just trying to undo history."

Over the holidays, Chief Judge Susan F. Schaeffer will read the church's motion to dismiss the charges, as well as the state's response. She plans to schedule a hearing early next year. A trial is planned for March 6.

In addition to constitutional arguments, the document filed Monday was rife with new details about the case.

It accused high-ranking church staffers in Clearwater of misleading and lying to police investigators and later to the public through statements that sanitized the "nightmarish" details of McPherson's demise at Scientology's Fort Harrison Hotel. She was held there for 17 days while experiencing a severe mental breakdown. She died Dec. 5, 1995, of a blood clot in her left lung.

One staffer, according to the document, later acknowledged lying to police to protect himself and the church.

The document also contains evidence that Scientologists themselves were deeply conflicted and disturbed about McPherson's treatment. One staffer, a former nurse, complained to someone in the church's legal department. Another Scientologist -- the doctor who pronounced McPherson dead -- described the condition of her body as "horrific," the prosecution document states.

The document also dwells on the fact that Scientology has not been able to explain the disappearance of internal notes on McPherson's care, most notably the jottings of staffers who cared for her in the final two days of her life.

Another issue was whether McPherson consented to her care at the Fort Harrison Hotel. Church lawyers say there are records showing she did. They also say that she consented to her treatment by virtue of being a Scientologist.

But prosecutors argue that many actions by church staffers were not Scientology religious practices at all. They cited several instances, including:

Three attempts by one staffer, an unlicensed dentist, to inject a mixture of ground aspirin and Benadryl into the back of McPherson's throat with a large syringe.

Numerous attempts to hold McPherson down for periods of 30 minutes to an hour.

Prosecutors also cited sworn statements from church staffers that McPherson never received a complete meal during her stay, and that she never consented to being medicated.

Also cited was a written Flag policy, which expressly forbids the care of psychotic individuals at the hotel.

Prosecutors argued: "There is no constitutional or statutory right to practice unlicensed medicine or abuse disabled adults simply because this criminal conduct may be alleged to be a religious practice."

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