Medical examiner: Case has taken a toll


Jun 14, 2000

CLEARWATER - Medical examiner Joan Wood says the case against the Church of Scientology has hurt her personally, but she doesn't plan to quit her job.

The now-defunct case has taken "a toll far greater than anything else in my life," Wood said Tuesday. Even now, she worries her actions have been misinterpreted.

In February, when Wood rewrote church member Lisa McPherson's death certificate, calling the death an accident, she didn't intend to blame the 36-year-old woman's fatal blood clot on a car crash, she said.

Wood added "psychosis and history of auto accident" to significant conditions that contributed to McPherson's 1995 death. She mentioned a bruise.

She deleted "bed rest and severe dehydration" as underlying causes, taking the heat off McPherson's caregivers at the church's Fort Harrison Hotel.

Then for four months, Wood and her staff refused to elaborate, leaving many to assume Wood had bought into an argument by church officials that McPherson's pulmonary embolism was caused by a crash injury.

But Wood, who called The Tampa Tribune on Tuesday to clarify her position, said she mentioned the crash on the death certificate only because the crash ultimately led to McPherson's winding up in the care of fellow Scientologists.

"I'm saying in my opinion, her problems began when she had that accident and there is an unbroken chain from that accident to Morton Plant Hospital, back to the church, through the 17 days to her death," Wood said.

Wood had little luck making the same case earlier this month before prosecutor Doug Crow.

In a memo to State Attorney Bernie McCabe, Crow called Wood's explanations illogical.

"One might just as well have argued that the fact that Lisa was a Scientologist, lived in Clearwater or got out bed that morning are causes contributing to the death," Crow wrote.

Wood spoke only briefly with a reporter. She said attorneys told her not to discuss the case.

It's a position she and chief aide Larry Bedore have taken repeatedly in recent months. Previously, they blamed a judge's order.

While some news agencies, including The Tampa Tribune, have reported steadily since February that Wood's amended death certificate linked the blood clot to a car crash, the medical examiner's office did not object until Tuesday.

On Monday, Wood bore the brunt of Crow's criticism when McCabe dropped church charges of practicing unlicensed medicine and neglect of a disabled adult.

She's been faulted for vacillating in her conclusions on key elements of the McPherson autopsy.

"Mr. McCabe continues to support me," she said. "He says he'll block any move to have me removed and I don't intend to leave. I have a 25-year record in this office and this is one case."