Jun 14, 2000
Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe spent much of last weekend trying to decide whether his office should prosecute the Church of Scientology for its role in the death of Lisa McPherson. McCabe decided 19 months ago, after an 11-month review of allegations, that he had the evidence to prove both that the church abused McPherson and that its members had practiced medicine without a license. He filed charges based largely on the findings of Joan Wood, Pinellas County's medical examiner. McPherson died Dec. 5, 1995, after spending 17 days under the ``care'' of Scientologists at the Fort Harrison Hotel, where she was taken following a minor traffic accident the preceding month. An assistant medical examiner whom Wood had tried to fire for incompetence conducted an autopsy. A year later, Tribune reporters started asking questions. Wood had by then determined that McPherson died of a blood clot in the lungs caused by forced bed rest and severe, prolonged dehydration. The church said that McPherson's death was accidental and that she had always been free to leave the hotel. Wood went on television to say church officials were misleading the public. She gave reporters her findings and opened herself up to possible legal action by the church. Certainly she soon became intimately aware of the pressure the church can wield. Last fall Wood agreed to reconsider her findings. Perhaps the pressure got to her. Perhaps not. But after reviewing thousands of pages of studies and other documents provided by the church's experts, she changed her mind. McPherson's death was accidental, she announced in February. The blood clot was caused by the traffic accident. Her late decision left prosecutors in a bind, and her subsequent attempts to explain herself during a June 1 meeting left them with the belief that inconsistencies in her statements would make it difficult to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt. So on Monday, McCabe made the only decision he could. He dropped the charges. This was never an easy case. Although brought as a criminal matter, it was really a medical case, and prosecutors needed strong and convincing testimony from a sure medical examiner to prove the charges and attain a conviction. Scientology officials maintain that the prosecutors never had a case and that lies infected the investigation from the beginning. Senior official Marty Rathbun told reporter David Sommer that McCabe's decision was "a watershed event between an old era of distrust and misunderstandings and a new era of moving forward with the community." But Lisa McPherson did not die an easy death, and the church's own internal records reveal, at the very least, a gross insensitivity to her worsening condition. Further, when church members realized how sick she was, they took her to an emergency room 45 minutes away rather than to close-by Morton Plant Hospital, where she could have received immediate medical attention. The point is that the questions raised by McCabe's office haven't gone away, and neither has the civil case brought against the church by McPherson's estate. Perhaps in that forum, the truth about Lisa McPherson's death will finally be known.