Judge tells Scientologists to give evidence to family of dead woman

Tampa Tribune, February 26, 2000
By Gary Sprott

TAMPA - The family of Scientologist Lisa McPherson will be allowed to see the new evidence that helped convince a medical examiner to amend her autopsy report on McPherson, a judge ruled Friday. Pasco-Pinellas Medical Examiner Joan Wood kfiled an autopsy report last week finding McPherson's death in December 1995 accidental rather than undetermined, as Wood originally reported. Medical experts hired by the Church of Scientology provided most of the fresh evidence and test results Wood reviewed.

Hillsborough Circuit Judge James S. Moody Jr., who is presiding over the McPherson family's wrongful death lawsuit against the church, gave the church three weeks to turn over copies of that new material. The ruling was strongly opposed by attorneys for the church who said the information is exempt from release because it's part of an ongoing criminal investigation.

McPherson, 36, died following a prolonged stay at the church's spiritual headquarters in Clearwater. Pasco-Pinellas prosecutors say the 13-year Scientologist was force- fed unprescribed medication and forcibly restrained during her stay.

Church officials have been charged with practicing medicine without a license and abusing a disabled adult. The church faces a maximum fine of $15,000 in the case. However, prosecutors say they will consider dismissing the charges in light of the amended autopsy.

Wood removed wording on her original report that said the blood clot that killed McPherson was caused by bed rest and severe dehydration. She added wording indicating that psychosis and a recent car wreck contributed. Wood's attorney has said the medical examiner is required to consider all new evidence.

Church officials disputed Wood's original report. They noted that her former associate, who performed the autopsy, also eventually concluded McPherson's death was accidental.

Tampa lawyer Ken Dandar, who is representing the McPherson family, said he can't force Wood to turn over the new evidence. He asked Moody to compel the church to provide copies.

But Michael Lee Hertzberg, an attorney for the church, said Dandar was simply trying to mine the criminal case for information. Moody said that because the church provided the documents to Wood -a potential witness in the wrongful death case - it must also give them to the family.

Hertzberg tried again, asking the judge to at least place a hold on the release pending developments in the criminal case. No, Moody replied.

Hertzberg later tried a third time, saying he was ``urging ... imploring'' the judge to reconsider.

``I reconsidered it,'' Moody said, ``and I'm not changing my mind.'' Attorneys for the church say the amended autopsy undermines the wrongful death lawsuit, which is scheduled to go to trial in June. Dandar disagrees. Wood still lists severe dehydration as part of the final diagnosis, he said, and that shows McPherson was mistreated during her stay.

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