Scientology critic won't face retrial

Prosecutors decide to drop a marijuana charge after jurors, concerned about church influence, deadlock

St. Petersburg Times/May 26, 2001
By Deborah O'Neil

Clearwater -- When the two-day misdemeanor trial of Scientology critic Jesse Prince ended Thursday, jurors had little doubt he had possessed marijuana as the state charged.

What bothered some of them, according to two jurors, was the possibility that Prince had been set up by the Church of Scientology.

They heard testimony about how Prince, once a high-ranking church member, was watched, videotaped and trailed for months by private investigators hired by Scientology lawyers.

Private investigator Barry Gaston said he was hired because he is black, like Prince, and befriended Prince using a false name. Gaston said he was paid $14,000 for his work.

Ultimately, the private investigators gave police information that led to Prince's arrest. In his closing arguments Prince's lawyer Denis deVlaming hammered home a point that would stick in some jurors minds.

"A real church is a house of God," deVlaming said. "You tell me what house of God hires somebody like Gaston to be able to infiltrate a life?" The jurors deadlocked after five hours of deliberations and a mistrial was declared. On Friday, the State Attorney's Office dropped the charge against Prince, capping a bizarre case that, in the end, left the church explaining its tactics.

"We've made the decision not to retry Mr. Prince," said prosecutor Lydia Wardell on Friday. "It was just time that we decided we'd spent enough time and energy and money on this particular charge." Nothing about the state's case was questioned, she noted.

Wardell put Prince's own fiancee, Deneen Phillips, on the stand. She testified under a court subpoena that Prince knew there was a marijuana plant on their back porch and that they had smoked pot together. Still, the jury did not convict.

"I knew I was going to have a very hard time based solely on the fact that Scientology hired the firm that hired the investigators," Wardell said. "We all know it came down to that."

Juror Tiffany Scurlock of Palm Harbor said she and other jurors felt Prince was probably guilty of the charges, but, "I think a lot of it had to do with entrapment. They (other jurors) felt like the Church of Scientology had a lot to do with setting him up."

Mike Rinder, a top Scientology official, said the case became trial by innuendo and deVlaming effectively deflected attention from the critical issue: Prince's drug possession. If the jurors were concerned with Scientology's role, Rinder said, "it's just a matter of prejudice."

The church, he said, investigated Prince because he is being paid to testify against the church in a civil lawsuit and has told outrageous lies about the church under oath. Also, Rinder said, investigators have watched Prince because he has a history of making violent threats against church members.

Rinder argued that the church merely reported Prince's illegal activities to law enforcement. "When it comes to someone who is anti-Scientology it seems there's a double standard," Rinder said. "We have to go around and document every bit of it and put it all together. Then it turns into, "The church did it.' If the allegation were being made about someone in the church, the police would be doing the investigation themselves."

Rinder said he wasn't surprised the charges were dropped, given the expensive defense. Prince's defense cost an estimated $45,000, said Stacy Brooks, president of the Lisa McPherson Trust, a Scientology watchdog organization in downtown Clearwater where Prince works. The Trust, which is funded mostly with money from millionaire Scientology critic Robert Minton, paid Prince's legal bills, she said.

The case was the third time in a year a member of the Lisa McPherson trust has been on trial for misdemeanor criminal charges in cases that involve the Church of Scientology. DeVlaming represented all three, and none were convicted. In all, the trust has spent close to $150,000 in legal fees, Brooks said.

"The reason Jesse and Bob and I wanted this to go to trial is we wanted the information to be made public that Scientology does this to people," said Brooks. For his part, Prince said: "The thing that's most important to me that happened in this case is we stood up and fought it."

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