The Tampa Tribune
Apr 7, 2000 - 02:10 AM
PATTY RYAN and LESLEY COLLINS Just before she backed away from blaming Lisa McPherson's death on bed rest and dehydration at the hands of Scientologists, the chief medical examiner e-mailed a colleague, pleading for help in proving the case. "Please don't let me down. Life and career at stake," Pasco-Pinellas Medical Examiner Joan E. Wood wrote Feb. 13 in a note she titled, "URGENT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" Defense attorneys brought up the e-mail Thursday in a St. Petersburg courtroom, where Pasco-Pinellas Circuit Judge Susan Schaeffer heard final arguments on a motion to dismiss charges. The recipient of Wood's e-mail was not identified. But Wood sought help explaining the absence of "ketones" in tests of bodily fluid taken from McPherson after her death Dec. 5, 1995. Ketones indicate a variety of physical conditions and diseases, including dehydration. "We are truly down to do or die here," she wrote. "I will do whatever is right, but if we are vulnerable because [we] cannot explain absence of ketones, I will have to back down." The e-mail message, which prosecutors gave to defense attorneys this week, sheds light on Wood's decision to amend an autopsy report that had become a rallying point for critics of Scientology. Wood otherwise has refused to explain why she changed the report. Experts on both sides agree that McPherson died of a blood clot that lodged in her lungs. Initially, Wood blamed the fatal clot on "bed rest and severe dehydration," an opinion that cast aspersion on McPherson's caregivers. Fellow Scientologists had shepherded McPherson through a mental breakdown during the 17 days prior to her death. The religion prohibits psychiatric care. On Feb. 16, Wood redirected her findings to include references to psychosis and a recent car crash, lending fuel to the church's theory that the clot was borne of a fender-bender that bruised the 36-year-old woman's left leg. "THE SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE is clear," senior church official Marty Rathbun said Thursday after the hearing. "The medical examiner had nothing and still has nothing to refute it. They don't have an expert who can back up the dehydration theory." In addition to the Feb. 13 e- mail, church attorneys were given copies of correspondence to Wood from former Dade County Medical Examiner Joe Davis. He titled one "Demons"; in it, he consoled Wood over a critical editorial that appeared in a newspaper, apparently the St. Petersburg Times. While the newspaper questioned Wood's competence, it also demanded justice, Davis noted, invoking the memories of famed World War II allied generals Bernard Law Montgomery and Dwight D. Eisenhower. "Monty and Eisenhower did not see eye to eye in every respect but they both fought on the same side against the evil forces of Hitler - and won," Davis wrote. Rathbun said he wouldn't dignify the comparison with a response. "It's like war," he said. "And they're supposed to be neutral forensic experts." Wood's chief spokesman, operations director Larry Bedore, refused to comment on the contents of the e-mail messages but did not dispute their existence. The reading of the electronic message drew a murmur from a packed courtroom of spectators, most of them Scientologists. The state had charged a church, and it was a church that came to answer, men and women dressed in fine attire, with crisp neckties and coiffed hair, arms folded in a chilly hall of justice. They were attentive. They laughed Wednesday when Schaeffer botched a Scientology term, PTS-3, and called McPherson a "PMS-3." They applauded Thursday when she urged attorneys to be clear so the press might get the facts straight. She peered down from a bench loaded with books on Scientology and raised thick folders of exhibits to demonstrate the volume of materials offered. She shared a few opinions. She saw no evidence that McPherson had been held against her will. She saw nothing wrong with church members' taking McPherson to the Fort Harrison Hotel for care instead of sending her home to family in Texas. But she did ask why an unlicensed doctor and dentist were the only medical workers who saw McPherson before she died. THROUGH THE TWO-DAY hearing, the judge repeatedly questioned whether the prosecution had gone after the right target. Schaeffer echoed a position taken by the church. If prosecutors suspected wrongdoing, why did they not charge individuals instead of the institution? The church's Flag Services Organization, a Clearwater retreat for spiritual counseling, is charged with abuse of a disabled adult and practicing unlicensed medicine. Charging the church was more viable than targeting low-level Scientology workers who committed isolated acts, the prosecutor said. "No one would talk to us without a subpoena and without immunity," Assistant State Attorney Doug Crow said. Crow told the judge that church employees weren't candid. Blame shifted. People changed their stories. There was collective action and collective inaction, he said. "We believe corporate prosecution is valid," Crow said. "What if I disagreed with you?" Schaeffer asked. "And I think I do, quite honestly." Schaeffer said she likely won't rule for a month. Patty Ryan can be reached at [email protected] (813) 259-7605. Lesley Collins can be reached at [email protected] (727) 799-7413.