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Church pleads innocent to criminal charges

The Church of Scientology requests a jury trial in the case of member Lisa McPherson, who died in 1995.


© St. Petersburg Times, published December 1, 1998

CLEARWATER -- The Church of Scientology pleaded innocent Monday to criminal charges that it mistreated and illegally practiced medicine on one of its members, Lisa McPherson, who died after a 17-day stay at a Scientology hotel.

A Scientology lawyer hand-delivered a written plea Monday morning, averting a scheduled afternoon appearance before Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Timothy Peters.

The church was charged this month in the 1995 death of McPherson, 36.

She was kept in a room at Scientology's Fort Harrison Hotel as fellow Scientologists tried to nurse her through a psychotic episode, in part by force-feeding her food, liquids, medicines and herbal remedies, according to an affidavit filed with the charges.

Absent from the otherwise standard plea form was the usual defense motion to see evidence that prosecutors used in making the charges.

In legal parlance, it's known as a "motion to participate in discovery." When the defense asks to see the prosecutor's evidence, it also obligates itself to share its own evidence or testimony with the prosecutor. As part of the exchange, the public gets to seethe information too.

The church's decision to forgo the discovery process was cause Monday for speculation about its legal strategy.

"That's a very unusual situation," said Public Defender Bob Dillinger, adding that the discovery motion is standard at this juncture in 99 percent of his cases.

"It's a rare case where I do not engage in discovery," said veteran St. Petersburg defense lawyer Mike Schwartzberg.

Dillinger, Schwartzberg and others said the omission could be insignificant. Scientology can always start the discovery process later, they said.

But if the church intends to see the strategy through, the lack of "discovery" could set the stage for the kind of trial often seen in TV dramas but rarely in real life -- where neither side knows in advance what witnesses or evidence the other will bring forth.

"There's a lot of strategy in making that determination," Schwartzberg said. "It's a chess game."

Much of evidence gathered by Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe is from interviews with Scientologists who were with McPherson when, investigators say, her health deteriorated from lack of proper care.

By now, the church and its lawyers "probably know 95 percent of what there is to know about the case," said Clearwater defense lawyer Michael Cheek. If a defendant doesn't need to see the prosecutor's evidence, Cheek said, omitting the discovery motion can be a way to keep that evidence sealed and out of the public eye.

None of the church's three primary lawyers on the case was available Monday for interviews, and Mike Rinder, a top Scientology official, had no comment.

This month, when Rinder expressed a desire to put the case in the past and acknowledged the church had erred, it signaled to some in the legal community that a "no contest" plea was in the offing. On Monday, however, the form used by the church included a "demand for jury trial."

"They just want to keep us all guessing," said Tampa lawyer Ken Dandar, who is representing McPherson's family in another forum -- a Hillsborough County wrongful death lawsuit against Scientology.

The church is charged in Pinellas with two felonies: abuse and/or neglect of a disabled adult and unauthorized practice of medicine. Because the church was charged as a corporation, no individual Scientologist was arrested.

In the absence of a hearing, a handful of Scientology critics protested against the church outside the Pinellas criminal courts complex. They were watched by a man with a video camera, who would not identify himself other than to say he was a Scientologist.

The protest was the critics' warmup for two larger pickets and a candlelight vigil this weekend in front of Scientology's Fort Harrison Hotel in Clearwater.

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