Legal battle not over in Florida Scientology case

June 13, 2000

CLEARWATER, Fla., (Reuters) - Church of Scientology officials Tuesday hailed the dismissal of criminal charges against the church in the death of one of its members, while a critic promised to continue the legal battle in civil court.

Pinellas County State Attorney Bernie McCabe on Monday dropped felony charges of abuse of a disabled adult and practicing medicine without a license against the church in the 1995 death of Lisa McPherson after she had been in the care of church members for 17 days.

McCabe said the case had been undermined when Pinellas Medical Examiner Joan Wood changed her finding in McPherson's death from undetermined to accidental in February after experts hired by the church disputed her original autopsy results.

"We're very happy. We think that was the appropriate thing to do," Scientology spokesman Mike Rinder said of McCabe's decision. The church has denied causing McPherson's death.

But Ken Dandar, the attorney for McPherson's estate, vowed to continue a separate civil suit against the church.

"This has absolutely no effect on the civil case. It actually makes our resolve stronger, if that's possible," Dandar told the St. Petersburg Times.

No trial date has been set for the civil case.

McPherson, 36, was involved in a minor traffic accident in Clearwater on November 18, 1995. After the accident, she took off all her clothes and asked a paramedic for help and was taken to a local hospital.

She left a few hours later with several Scientology members and was taken to the church's headquarters in downtown Clearwater in a former hotel.

On Dec. 5, her condition worsened and she was taken to a hospital several miles away where a doctor who was a Scientologist was on duty, rather than one a few blocks away. When she arrived at the hospital, she was pronounced dead.

According to an affidavit from an investigator working for the state attorney's office, McPherson was psychotic and delusional while she under the care of Scientology staffers.

The investigator said she was restrained and was forcibly given medication by unlicensed staff members. The investigator said much of the information in his affidavit came from interviews with some of those who cared for McPherson.

McCabe's criminal charges were against the church, not any individuals. If the church had been found guilty of one or both of the charges, the only penalty would have been fines.

McPherson moved from Texas to Clearwater, on Florida's west coast, in 1994 to take Scientology courses at the headquarters. She worked for a publishing company owned by Scientologists.

Scientology was founded by author L. Ron Hubbard in 1954 in Los Angeles. The Clearwater headquarters was established in 1975 as a spiritual center where Scientologists from the United States and other countries come to take courses.