Scientology Pleads Not Guilty in 1995 Death

Source: New York Times
Date: December 1, 1998

The Church of Scientology pleaded not guilty today to criminal charges in connection with the 1995 death of a member whose family maintained that she had been held against her will by the church for 17 days.

A church lawyer delivered the written plea to the clerk's office for Pinellas County Circuit Court. A hearing is expected within 30 days.

Although the woman's death has been a rallying point for critics of the church, a single protester, carrying a placard condemning the church, marched in front of the courthouse today.

The church's Flag Service Organization, its chief operating arm here, was charged in the case this month with abuse or neglect of a disabled adult and practicing medicine without a license, both felonies. No individuals were charged.

Under Florida law, the maximum penalty is a $5,000 fine for conviction on each charge, but courts may impose additional penalties, including forfeiture of property.

The charges were filed by the State Attorney for Pasco and Pinellas Counties, Bernie McCabe, in the death of Lisa McPherson, 36, on Dec. 5, 1995. Ms. McPherson had spent the 17 days before her death under 24-hour watch in a church-owned hotel in downtown Clearwater, which is the spiritual headquarters of Scientology.

An autopsy found that Ms. McPherson had died of a pulmonary embolism, or blood vessel blockage, caused by bed rest and severe dehydration. Dr. Joan Wood, the county medical examiner, said Ms. McPherson had gone without fluids for at least 5 to 10 days before her death. Ms. McPherson also appeared to have lost more than 40 pounds, the authorities said.

Church officials have maintained that the lengthy investigation and charges in the case are the result of a 15-year vendetta against Scientology by Clearwater police and other local officials. The church says that Ms. McPherson was well-cared-for during her stay but that she became violent and incoherent and stopped eating.

Church officials and lawyers said Ms. McPherson was taken to a hospital after her condition worsened suddenly. They said their medical experts will testify that Ms. McPherson's death was unrelated to her stay at the hotel.

Ms. McPherson had been involved in a minor traffic accident in downtown Clearwater. She appeared to be uninjured but took off her clothes and walked down the street naked. She was taken to Morton Plant Hospital, where a physician wanted to admit her for psychiatric treatment.

The Church of Scientology adamantly opposes psychiatric care, and Ms. McPherson refused the treatment. Instead, she signed herself out of the hospital and accompanied a group of Scientologists to the church's Fort Harrison Hotel.

Church records show that she hallucinated, became violent and refused to eat at the hotel. She had to be restrained several times, according to accounts provided to the police by her caretakers at the hotel.

Ms. McPherson's family has filed a lawsuit against the church that is scheduled to go to trial next summer. The family is seeking unspecified damages.