Scientology case centers on autopsy

Tampa Tribune, April 6, 2000
By David Sommer

The judge now considering whether to dismiss charges against the Church of Scientology in the death of Lisa McPherson said Wednesday the whole case may hinge on the word of a medical examiner.

Pasco-Pinellas Medical Examiner Joan Wood stunned prosecutors in February when she amended her autopsy report to say Lisa McPherson died accidentally Dec. 5, 1995, as the result of a blood clot caused by a traffic accident.

Previously, Wood blamed McPherson's death on a blood clot caused by dehydration and too much bed rest during her 17-day stay at the church's spiritual headquarters, Clearwater's Fort Harrison Hotel.

At the opening of a two-day hearing on the church's request for dismissal of charges of neglect of a disabled adult and practicing medicine without a license, the lead prosecutor said he is still studying what effect Wood's amended autopsy finding has on the case.

Despite the new autopsy report, Wood is still prepared to testify that McPherson died as a result of medical neglect while in the care of church staffers, State Attorney Doug Crow told Circuit Judge Susan Schaeffer.

Schaeffer, who recently took back responsibility for the case after briefly turning it over to another judge during a medical leave, said Crow's prosecution will hinge on Wood's credibility before a jury.

``She's the medical examiner of this circuit. She's testified in very important cases,'' Schaeffer said. ``In this case, she's under question: Can she withstand rigorous questioning'' about changing her original findings?

Later, the judge appeared to question Wood's ability to continue in office as the circuit's chief medical examiner.

It is now obvious to any lawyer familiar with the McPherson case that Wood's credibility is in question, the judge said.

``She's the medical examiner in the Sixth [Judicial] Circuit. She testifies in extremely important homicide cases and rape cases and on and on,'' Schaeffer said. ``It's a very serious situation.''

After adjourning the hearing for the night, Schaeffer declined to comment on Gov. Jeb Bush's decision earlier this week to reappoint Wood for another three years.

Wood, who has held the chief medical examiner's post in Pasco and Pinellas counties since 1982, could not be reached for comment late Wednesday.

She has repeatedly refused to explain her decision to change the autopsy results. The change was made after church lawyers provided Wood with the findings of a number of experts hired by the church to look into the case.

Despite all the talk Wednesday about Wood and the changed report, Schaeffer stressed that this week's hearing is not about the facts of the case, but legal issues.

The church contends the criminal charges, which carry a maximum $15,000 fine, are a violation of the First Amendment right to freedom of religion.

Worldwide publicity about the case has stigmatized the church and its members, defense lawyer Eric Lieberman told Schaeffer.

Never before has a church been charged with crimes, he said. If McPherson really was the victim of criminal neglect during the last 17 days of her life at the Fort Harrison, then prosecutors should have charged the individuals responsible for her care, Lieberman argued.

Contrary to Crow's assertions, there is no evidence that McPherson was dehydrated, or that dehydration contributed to her death, defense attorney Lee Fugate told the judge.

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