Judge releases McPherson autopsy photos

The Church of Scientology had sought to keep the photos out of the public eye

St. Petersburg Times / July 21, 2000
By Thomas C. Tobin

CLEARWATER -- A Pinellas judge Thursday ordered that photos of the 1995 autopsy of Lisa McPherson be released, a ruling that closes the book on the criminal case against the Church of Scientology.

The church's last-minute attempt to keep the photos sealed was denied by the Second District Court of Appeal and they were given to media outlets Thursday afternoon.

They also were made available for public inspection at the Circuit Court Clerk's Office in Clearwater and at the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office. The St. Petersburg Times elected not to publish the photos in the newspaper. Two of the 40 photos will accompany this story on the newspaper's Internet site and users first get a warning of what's to come.

Bob Minton, head of a Scientology watchdog group in Clearwater, said he had no plans to publish the photos on the Internet, but expected others would. The ruling ends a dispute that began June 12, when State Attorney Bernie McCabe dropped charges alleging the church abused and illegally practiced medicine on McPherson.

McCabe's office released its investigative files but withheld the autopsy photos while the church contested their release. The church argued the photos could jeopardize its right to a fair trial in a wrongful death lawsuit by McPherson's family, still pending in Tampa. Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Crockett Farnell released the photos after a Times lawsuit was filed, contending the photos were public record.

Most of the photos show McPherson, 36, on a metal gurney at the Medical Examiner's Office on Dec. 6, 1995, the day after she died of a blood clot in her left lung while in the care of Scientology staffers who tried for 17 days to nurse her through a mental breakdown.

The photos show a woman who is thin, but not skeletal. They show a large black bruise on her lower left thigh and a number of abrasions on her hands, arms, legs and feet.

They also show large areas of her body that are purple -- areas that lay people might interpret as bruises but in fact are places where a lack of circulation has caused blood to settle.

The clues left by McPherson's body have been hotly debated for four years, a debate that continues in the wrongful death case. Did McPherson lose 40 pounds in the 17 days of church care as prosecutors and McPherson's family have alleged? Was she severely dehydrated? No, say church officials, who Thursday produced photos of McPherson taken weeks before her death. Her build in the autopsy photos is no different than the photos of her during life, they say.

The church and its experts also pointed to a leg bruise. They say sections of the bruise taken at autopsy indicate it was the cause of a blood clot behind her left knee that traveled to her lung, causing death. They say microscopic slides of the bruise indicate it was caused by an auto accident she was in before coming under Scientology's care.

Tampa lawyer Ken Dandar, who represents McPherson's family in the lawsuit, said the leg bruise couldn't have caused the blood clot because his medical experts say it was too fresh.

Explaining the Times' decision to present two of the photos on its Internet site, the newspaper's editor and president Paul Tash said: "We're in the business of providing information, and those photos seem to reflect on the arguments made by both sides about the cause of Lisa McPherson's death and her care in the days before. We publish them here so that readers are not inadvertently confronted with them but may choose to see them if they wish."

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