Scientology promises long fight
By THOMAS C. TOBIN
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 16, 1998
LEARWATER -- The Church of Scientology has notified the Pinellas court system that it plans to mount a long and complex legal battle against charges that it contributed to the death of one of its members, Lisa McPherson.
In a letter, church attorney Lee Fugate asked that the case be assigned to a "special docket," where it wouldn't interfere with the courthouse's normal case load.
Fugate indicated that the stream of motions by Scientology would be "complex" and "voluminous" and would require "a significant number of hearings and significant hearing time" that might burden the current judge on the case, Timothy Peters.
He wrote that the demands on the court system would rival that of another high-profile case, the prosecution of Baptist leader Henry J. Lyons, which was placed on a special docket. Chief Judge Susan Schaeffer assigned herself to the case earlier this year.
Fugate's letter, dated Monday, also said the church will waive its right to a speedy trial because he expects the case to be "time-consuming." He estimated the trial could take up to two months.
Scientology is known for its long and hard-fought court battles. The McPherson case marks the first time a Scientology corporation has been criminally charged.
The church's operating entity in Clearwater was charged Nov. 13 with abuse and/or neglect of a disabled adult and unauthorized practice of medicine in the 1995 death of McPherson, a longtime Scientologist.
The church has pleaded innocent to both charges, which are felonies.
McPherson, who was 36, died in the care of fellow Scientologists after a 17-day stay at the church's downtown Clearwater retreat, the Fort Harrison Hotel.
Mike Rinder, a top church official, said Tuesday that the church's position of wanting to proceed quickly has not changed. "This is just a routine type of thing that happens in a criminal case," Rinder said. "Don't read anything into this at all."
However, one of the lawyers who represents Lyons disagrees with that assessment.
Clearwater defense lawyer Denis DeVlaming said he has moved for a special docket only once in his 26-year legal career, and that was in the Lyons case.
"It is not routine -- anything but routine," he said. "It sounds as if they're going to gear up for court."
Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe, who brought the charges against the church, said cases occasionally are placed on a special docket. Besides the Lyons case, he recalled that one or two recent murder cases had achieved that status.
Asked for his assessment of the church's latest move, McCabe said: "I don't know what it means." He added he would not have predicted a two-month trial.
Because Scientology has been charged corporately, no individual will be punished or prosecuted. If convicted, the church would have to pay fines of $15,000 and could be made to pay for McPherson's burial costs.
A judge also could assess additional penalties, including forcing the church to reimburse the Clearwater Police Department and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement for an investigation that began three years ago.
Those costs have been estimated at about $180,000.