McPherson Case: "Scientologist's death now ruled accidental"

(Associated Press, February 23, 2000)

ST. PETERSBURG -- Four years after a Scientologist died while being treated by church members following a traffic accident, a medical examiner now says the woman's death was accidental.
The decision by Pasco-Pinellas Medical Examiner Joan Wood to change the cause of Lisa McPherson's death from "undetermined" could have a major impact on the state's prosecution of the Clearwater-based church.
Prosecutors have charged the church with practicing medicine without a license and abusing a disabled adult for its treatment of McPherson. Now, prosecutors have to decide whether to drop, amend or pursue the charges.
"We need to review (McPherson's decision)," said Assistant State Doug Crow said. "I wouldn't want to speculate about what effect it may have." Church attorney Sandy Weinberg predicts that if prosecutors do not dismiss the charges, a judge will. An emergency hearing is scheduled for Wednesday on a Scientology bid to block prosecutors from releasing 10,000 pages of investigative reports and witness statements.
Ken Dandar, the attorney for McPherson's family, which has filed suit against the church, believes the new findings will help his case, but he wants to discuss them with Wood.
Wood, who was unavailable for comment, filed the amended autopsy Friday after reviewing new medical evidence and test results, most of them provided by church-hired experts, said her attorney, Jeff Goodis.
McPherson, 36, died on Dec. 5, 1995, 17 days after being involved in a minor traffic accident. She took off her clothes and began walking down the street. Police took her to a hospital, but she soon left with Scientology officials, who wanted her to avoid psychiatric treatment, which is against church teachings.
She was taken to the Fort Harrison Hotel, the church's headquarters. Over the next 2 1/2 weeks, prosecutors say, she was force-fed unprescribed medicine and forcibly restrained by church officials. Officials say she lost up to 57 pounds. Church officials have denied the charges.
McPherson eventually was taken to a hospital, but was pronounced dead.
Wood originally said she died of a blood clot in her lungs caused by bed rest and severe dehydration.
But she has now dropped references to bed rest and dehydration, and lists psychosis and the auto accident as contributing factors.
The Church of Scientology, based in Los Angeles, was founded in 1954 by the late science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard. His book "Dianetics" formed the basis of his philosophy that traumatic memories in past lives could be cleared through church counseling.
Scientology officials say the religion's goal is to help individuals understand and improve their lives. Celebrities including John Travolta, Kirstie Alley and Lisa Marie Presley have publicly promoted the religion. While church officials say worldwide membership is around 9 million, estimates by former members have been much lower.
Critics say the church is scam designed to bilk members.

"Church member's death now called accident: The medical examiner's switch, after mounds of information from Scientology, could affect the McPherson case against the church"

by Thomas C. Tobin ("St. Petersburg Times", February 23, 2000)

CLEARWATER -- Medical examiner Joan Wood now is calling the 1995 death of Scientologist Lisa McPherson an "accident," a change that is causing prosecutors to rethink their case against the Church of Scientology.
Wood's original ruling called the manner of death "undetermined." Scientology's top executives, clearly pleased Tuesday, called the switch "extremely significant and a huge development that dramatically affects the state's case." They said it supports their view that McPherson's death while in the care of Scientology staffers in Clearwater was sudden, unpredictable, "undiagnosable" and not the church's fault.
Assistant State Attorney Doug Crow, the lead prosecutor in the case, called the change "something of major significance we need to review." He declined to discuss how the case might be affected, adding: "We really need to evaluate that, and we'll take some time to do that." The church is charged with two felony counts -- abuse of a disabled adult and practicing medicine without a license. McPherson, 36, had become psychotic as church staffers tried for 17 days to quiet her during an unusual Scientology "isolation watch." Wood's decision came after church officials and their lawyers spent months plying the veteran medical examiner with expert information that revealed the lengths to which Scientology has gone to defend itself. There were scientific studies on a body substance known as ketone, an elaborate accident reconstruction, even a report by an "anthropometric" specialist who studied McPherson's physical stature.
Mike Rinder, a top Scientology official, said the dollar amount spent on the case so far is "enormous," but said the church felt it was necessary so Wood and prosecutors would have "the correct information." The civil case against Scientology, filed in Hillsborough County, is a different matter. Tampa lawyer Ken Dandar, who represents McPherson's family, said his wrongful-death case against the church is not diminished by Wood's change, though he added she needs to explain it.
"We don't know what she means by "accident,' " Dandar said.
Wood and her top assistant, Larry Bedore, were at a medical examiners conference in Reno, Nev., Tuesday and did not return phone calls to their hotel.
In her original ruling in 1996, Wood traced McPherson's death to a blood clot in McPherson's left lung that originated in a clot behind her left knee. Wood blamed it on "bed rest and severe dehydration." She also took the unusual step of elaborating for reporters, publicly stating that lab results on McPherson's eye fluid showed she died slowly.
Wood said she wanted to correct church lawyers, who were saying McPherson's death was sudden and unpredictable. She concluded McPherson went several days without fluids, was comatose and suffered roach bites while in Scientology's care.
The church was outraged, calling her a liar.
Then, late last year, Wood agreed to review her controversial opinions at the request of the church, which provided her with mounds of new information.
As part of the review, McPherson's eye fluid was retested two more times.
The review is mandated in Wood's policy manual, which says the medical examiner will "readdress key issues" in a case if "credible new evidence is presented, regardless of its source." The result: a revised report and the finding that McPherson's death was accidental.
Gone from the new report is the original reference to the bed rest and dehydration. Wood still traces the death to a blood clot behind McPherson's knee. But she lists McPherson's psychosis and a minor auto accident as major factors.
The latter reference is significant because it suggests support for the church's view that the cause of the blood clot that killed McPherson was a bruise she suffered in a minor auto accident just before church staffers began to care for her at Scientology's Fort Harrison Hotel.
In a discussion with the Times on Tuesday, Church officials disclosed much of the information they gave Wood last year for her review.
It included: Research on a substance known as ketone, which people produce when they are dehydrated, starving or even fasting, according to Rinder and Marty Rathbun, another church official. Tests of McPherson's bodily fluids showed no ketone, they said.
Information from church-hired experts, who conclude that a bruise on McPherson's lower left thigh caused the blood clot and was in turn caused by her auto accident. To make the case, the church tracked down McPherson's old car, a candy red 1993 Jeep Cherokee which had been sold by McPherson's mother. They also reconstructed the accident, concluding the bruise was in the shape of the driver's side door handle.
Findings from a body measurement expert hired by the church. The expert compared autopsy photos of McPherson with those taken in happier times, just before she became psychotic and entered the Fort Harrison. The expert concluded there was "no appreciable weight loss," which counters the prosecution's view that McPherson lost 20 to 40 pounds while in Scientology's care.
Literature that, according to Rathbun, shows that dehydration does not cause blood clots.
Rathbun added that new tests of McPherson's eye fluid were "all over the lot," proving Wood had invalid information when she concluded that McPherson was severely dehydrated.
Dandar, whose experts were present for the re-tests, disputed Rathbun's statements on the eye fluid, the dehydration and the source of the blood clot.
If anything, Dandar said, the new eye fluid tests show McPherson was more dehydrated than Wood originally thought.
He said his experts say that dehydration causes blood clots, despite what Scientology says.
He also disputes the church's theory that a bruise from McPherson's auto accident caused her fatal blood clot. His experts say there is no way a clot could have remained behind her knee for 17 days without causing some effect sooner.
In addition, a blood clot in one lung would not have been enough to cause death in a healthy adult such as McPherson, Dandar said.
The medical evidence "destroys everything they say," Dandar said. "They can't get around that." But Rinder said Dandar was inventing evidence.
"It's as ludicrous as the allegations he makes every day," Rinder said. "His case is a sham. It has been since Day One." Neither the church nor Dandar has had a chance to speak with Wood, whose new conclusions have so far only intensified the debate over McPherson's death.

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