2 judges, 2 counties, and a lot of baloney
By MARY JO MELONE © St. Petersburg Times, published April 9, 2000 Do you think it's possible that those Scientologists, those believers in e-meters and psychological audits and goose-stepping group-think, are transmitting weird radio signals that have addled some of the best minds in Pinellas County? How else to explain the mental nose dives of the medical examiner and the chief circuit judge when they were confronted with the story of the slow, miserable death in 1995 of Scientologist Lisa McPherson at the Fort Harrison Hotel? In February, Dr. Joan Wood, the medical examiner, reversed herself and ruled McPherson's death an accident. Last week, Judge Susan Schaeffer, who is presiding over the criminal case, dropped hints heavy as bricks that she may throw out the criminal charges against the church, for negligence and practicing medicine without a license. She even said she "felt sad" that members of the so-called church had to see pickets in Clearwater protesting McPherson's death. Never mind that nobody takes much pity on Baptists, Jews, Catholics, Muslims or any other religious group when they get banged around. Did Schaeffer have any concern for the feelings, confused, depressed and psychotic though they may have been, once possessed by Lisa McPherson? Apparently not. She even said McPherson went to the hotel, after a car accident and a bizarre episode in which she took off her clothes, quite willingly. Schaeffer said she was troubled by the state attorney's decision to prosecute the church, and not individuals, because this could be taken as an infringement on the right to practice religion. This is the part I gag on: The Internal Revenue Service gave Scientology the tax-exempt protection of a religion. If what they do at Scientology headquarters in Clearwater is a religion, then I'm a planet. Saturn, say, rings and all. All reason has not, however, been lost. For while Judge Schaeffer was in St. Petersburg, on her way to perhaps making it even harder to get justice for Lisa McPherson, a Tampa judge was doing the opposite. Schaeffer has the criminal case. Hillsborough Circuit Judge James Moody has the civil case, a wrongful death suit filed by McPherson's estate. On Friday, church lawyers asked him to throw out the suit, based on some of the nonsense Judge Schaeffer had swallowed. They again said Lisa McPherson was not out of her mind and made a free and independent decision after her car wreck to go to the hotel. Moody refused. He said whether McPherson had acted freely was in dispute. The judge also said he would do everything possible to keep religion out of the case. The suit was about the circumstances of McPherson's death, not about Scientology, he said. Now, criminal and civil cases are different legal creatures. The standard of proof in a criminal case is beyond a reasonable doubt. The winning side of a civil case needs the preponderance, or the majority, of the evidence. But those standards don't come into play until a jury gets the case. So what explains the difference between Schaeffer's and Moody's ways of thinking, other than the possibility that those weird radio signals haven't yet crossed the bay? Is it the differences between two judges and their personalities? Or are the politics of placating Scientology in play? Nobody in Hillsborough County has these people in his face all the time, the way they do in Pinellas County, or more particularly, the county seat. Clearwater's city manager, Mike Roberto, spends half his time making nice with the e-meter crowd. Could it be politics? If the answer is yes, then don't worry about radio signals. Worry that some of the best minds in Pinellas County have been cowed by Scientology.