County could get Scientology death case

Palm Beach Post/May 28, 2003
By Susan Spencer-Wendel

West Palm Beach -- Seven years of legal wrangling over the death of a Clearwater woman in custody of the Church of Scientology might land at a Palm Beach County courthouse door.

A Pinellas County judge heard Scientology lawyers argue Tuesday that the church cannot receive a fair trial because of extensive negative publicity over the death of Lisa McPherson.

The church lawyers asked that the wrongful death lawsuit be moved to Palm Beach County or, preferably, to Broward County.

A survey conducted by church lawyers this spring in Clearwater showed an overriding prejudice against the church, including some people who labeled it a mind-control cult.

The church lawyers asked that the case be moved to Palm Beach or Broward county because the counties have demographics similar to Pinellas County, said Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw.

The judge made no ruling Tuesday.

McPherson, 36, a devout Scientologist, had a mental breakdown in 1995 and was taken to a church retreat facility where she died 17 days later.

The melee since -- including criminal charges against the church in 1998 -- has spawned a national following in media and on the Internet, with special Web sites devoted to updating the public on the progress of the cases and operating procedures of the church.

Founded 50 years ago by L. Ron Hubbard and now based in Clearwater, Scientology is based on man's search for his spiritual identity.

The church has had runs of bad publicity before, but still has been openly praised by influential leaders and Hollywood stars such as John Travolta and Tom Cruise.

The McPherson case, though, is expected to display a totally different side of the religion, including Scientology staffers -- following Hubbard's regimen for dealing with psychotic members -- keeping McPherson isolated, trying to force-feed her, pumping her full of vitamins and herbs and injecting her with sedatives, according to published accounts.

McPherson's attorney did not return a call for comment Tuesday.

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