The Church of Scientology says that media coverage of the landmark Lisa McPherson wrongful death case has turned back the clock to days of "overt hate mongering and media-fueled public animus" and it can no longer get a fair trial in Tampa Bay.
The church on Wednesday filed a motion seeking to move the wrongful death trial to either Palm Beach or Broward county.
Church attorneys blame a "barrage of negative media coverage" about the lawsuit for widespread community prejudice against Scientology, documented in a random survey of shoppers at Tyrone Square Mall in early spring.
And the culprit for much of that negativity, the motion argues, is the repeated inclusion of "inflammatory and unethical" quotes from Ken Dandar, the attorney for the estate of McPherson, a Scientologist who died in 1995 after 17 days in the care of the church in Clearwater.
"For six years Dandar has made outrageous claims, accusing Flag (the church's Clearwater entity) of "capturing' and then "imprisoning' Lisa McPherson, then torturing and intentionally causing Lisa McPherson's death - indeed murdering her," the motion states. "Yet Dandar knew all of these allegations to be utterly false and eventually they were found to be false by judges."
Dandar stood by his statements Thursday.
"They need to get in the no-spin zone," he said.
Dandar said the church's attempt to move the trial is aimed at running up his expenses in hopes it will persuade the estate to settle the lawsuit.
Last month, the church cited the same mall survey in seeking to move a related breach of contract case out of Pinellas County. The church withdrew its motion two weeks later after Judge W. Douglas Baird offered to remove himself from that case because he is married to a Tampa Tribune reporter and socializes with employees of both the Tribune and the St. Petersburg Times.
According to the motion filed Wednesday, decades-old community prejudice against Scientology had "subsided markedly" prior to Dandar filing the wrongful death suit. "To the extent the tide had been turning by 1997, however, this case changed matters," the motion states.
Attached to the motion are copies of hundreds of newspaper articles, editorials and letters to the editor - enough to fill a shopping cart - which contain, the motion states, "derogatory content of one kind of another on Scientology."
"The cumulative effect is a broad and hostile public perception of Flag and Scientology with respect to the death of Lisa McPherson," the motion states.
After taking a public relations hit when it released the results of the survey in the previous motion for change of venue, this time church attorneys were careful to characterize the context of the negative comments made about the church.
Robert C. Sorensen of New York, who orchestrated the survey of 300 people, noted that on the subject of the Scientology religion generally, there were an equal number of neutral and negative responses. But when asked about Scientology in connection with the wrongful death case, four out of five gave negative opinions, he stated.
Dandar said he will contest the motion, arguing that the survey is legally inadmissible.