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Scientology critic's jury hung

May 25, 2001

Jurors in a misdemeanor marijuana case were unable to reach a verdict Thursday night on whether a prominent Church of Scientology critic had an illegal plant growing in his back yard.

"Everyone thinks he was set up," a juror said of defendant Jesse Prince. The man did not want to be identified.

Juror Tiffany Scurlock said the evidence showed Prince had marijuana growing in his Largo home. But Scurlock said she had a hard time with the church's involvement in the case. Private detectives working for the church shadowed Prince for months before succeeding in having him charged by Largo police with growing a marijuana plant on his deck.

"It has a lot to do with entrapment," Scurlock said. "I felt the Church of Scientology had a lot to do with setting him up. I felt he was guilty ... but there was a lot of setting up going on."

Mike Rinder, a member of Scientology's board of directors, said the church wants Prince exposed as a drug user because Prince repeatedly has testified against the church in court cases.

A former high-ranking church official turned church critic, Prince is listed as an expert witness on church doctrine in a pending civil lawsuit over the 1995 death of church member Lisa McPherson.

"Anybody who actually didn't have the drugs would have been acquitted," Rinder said. "Jesse Prince is a drug user, the state attorney knows he is a drug user, he's going to be tried again and we are very happy about that."

The jury, which deliberated five hours, was split 4-2 in favor of acquittal, and at one point only one juror was holding out for a guilty verdict, said the male juror who asked to remain anonymous.

The juror said no one on the panel believed the testimony of a private detective hired by the church to befriend Prince and gain entry into his home. It was that detective who turned informant and helped Largo police arrest Prince.

Other jurors declined to comment.

Pinellas County Judge Michael Andrews declared a mistrial and said a new trial date will be set at a future hearing. But Assistant State Attorney Lydia Wardell, who prosecuted the case, said it is too soon to say if her office will try again to convict Prince.

David Sommer can be reached at (727) 799-7413.