Doctors paid by church give defense

A former member of O.J. Simpson's "dream team" defense says Lisa McPherson's death was accidental

St. Petersburg Times, March 7, 2000
By Thomas C. Tobin

CLEARWATER -- As prosecutors consider whether to proceed with criminal charges in the death of Scientologist Lisa McPherson, the Church of Scientology on Monday presented two nationally known pathologists who said they have scientific evidence that the 1995 death was accidental. Drs. Michael M. Baden and Cyril H. Wecht also suggested their work is so conclusive the case should be dropped.

Their primary conclusion: McPherson, 36, died suddenly and unpredictably of a blood clot in her left lung that originated from a knee bruise she suffered in a minor auto accident 17 days earlier.

"This is Forensic Pathology 101," said Baden, once part of O.J. Simpson's "dream team" defense. "This is not complicated."

Wecht said the area behind McPherson's left knee, where the clot formed, is a common site for blood clots to develop. He said it traveled into McPherson's heart and lodged in her left lung.

"This is a very common cause of death in America," he said. "It remains a major problem in medicine."

Baden and Wecht said medical evidence proves McPherson did not die from anything done by staffers at Scientology's Fort Harrison Hotel, who, after the auto accident, tried for 17 days to nurse McPherson through a severe mental breakdown.

Prosecutors have questioned some of the methods of the Scientology staff, including forcing food and medication down McPherson's throat and giving her prescription medication and injections without medical licenses. But Wecht and Baden dismissed these as the harmless actions of people trying to help. They said they did not warrant criminal prosecution.

The doctors, hired two years ago by Scientology, also asserted there is no evidence that McPherson was dehydrated or malnourished.

Their statements at a news conference Monday come at an unusual juncture in a case that finds Scientology's Clearwater entity charged with two felonies in McPherson's death -- abuse of a disabled adult and practicing medicine without a license.

Prosecutors are reviewing whether the case will hold up after Medical Examiner Joan Wood revised her opinion on Feb. 16 by changing the manner of death from "undetermined" to "accident."

Baden and Wecht said they flew to Clearwater to respond to a recent St. Petersburg Times editorial about the case. In doing so, the two doctors provided insight into the size and scope of the church's defense team. Wecht said six additional forensic pathologists had independently reached the same conclusions he and Baden reached.

But their words also seemed directed at the office of State Attorney Bernie McCabe. Wecht said McCabe's office would be "irresponsible" and "less than meticulous" to ignore the doctors' work. Doug Crow, one of McCabe's top assistants, said if someone wants to present information about the case, "I don't think we'd ever refuse that type of information."

He said the office was continuing its review, but noted that Wood's revised autopsy "still made a finding of severe dehydration."

The church also must contend with testimony from one of its own members, Dr. David Minkoff, who told prosecutors in 1998 that McPherson was "severely dehydrated" when he pronounced her dead.

In 1996, Wood said the blood clot that caused McPherson's death was due to "bed rest and severe dehydration." She has since removed that phrase and listed "severe dehydration" as one of several "final anatomical diagnoses." She has not explained her decision.

Baden, a former chief medical examiner in New York City, has played roles in some of the country's most celebrated death cases. He participated in the re-autopsy of civil rights leader Medgar Evers. He led the 1979 congressional re-examination of evidence in the assassination of President Kennedy, and worked on the autopsies of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., actor John Belushi and former baseball manager Billy Martin.

Wecht, a lawyer and the county coroner in Pittsburgh, also worked on the 1979 Kennedy assassination commission and is a frequent commentator on major death cases.

Both doctors said they spoke Monday because of a March 3 Times editorial that said the church's experts put pressure on Wood to change her findings. It also called for Wood to explain her revision and encouraged McCabe to continue the prosecution.

Jack Reed, who edits Times editorials in north Pinellas, said the editorial board "is the newspaper's voice on public issues." "Our editorial position is that a jury should weigh the evidence and arrive at a verdict," Reed said.

Wecht said no church expert had any discussion with Wood. He said medical examiners review their findings all the time, and it would be "intellectually arrogant" to do otherwise.

"It is not done in any kind of surreptitious or clandestine fashion," he said.

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