By THOMAS C. TOBIN
St. Petersburg Times, published February 28, 1997
CLEARWATER - In a ruling that has both sides of a court case claiming victory, a judge will allow the Church of Scientology to examine some records from the autopsy of one of its members.
The records will be opened today to the church and the public. They concern Lisa McPherson, a 36-year-old Scientologist who entered the church's downtown Clearwater retreat a healthy woman and died 17 days later, on Dec. 5, 1995.
The church has objected to findings by Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner Joan Wood, who says McPherson was unconscious when she died and suffered from severe dehydration and insect bites.
This month Scientology filed a lawsuit seeking Wood's confidential files in the case, including blood, fluid and tissue samples from McPherson's body.
In his ruling Thursday, Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Bob Barker said those physical specimens were not public records and denied access to the church. But he did allow public access to laboratory reports about those specimens.
He also allowed public access to drafts of Wood's autopsy report, notes she used in authoring the report, laboratory reports, photos of insect bites on McPherson's body and photocopies of tissue slides.
He denied access to hospital records in Wood's files, photos showing the overall condition of McPherson's body, and records documenting how Wood's office kept track of evidence in the case.
The medical examiner is involved in an investigation that includes the Clearwater Police Department, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office.
The Church of Scientology says it has hired a team of nationally renowned medical experts who will examine the evidence as part of its own investigation. Lawyers for the church said the information, while not all they asked for, would be of great use to their medical team.
Church officials contend McPherson died of a staph infection.
Barker's decision "begins the process of allowing us to get at the truth in this case," said Scientology attorney Sandy Weinberg of Tampa. Regarding the records that remain closed, Weinberg said the church was deciding whether to appeal or ask Barker to reconsider.
Elliot Abelson, a Scientology attorney based in Los Angeles, called Barker's ruling "a humiliating defeat" for Wood and for the St. Petersburg law firm that defended her.
The firm, Rahdert Anderson McGowan & Steele, represents the St. Petersburg Times on First Amendment issues.
Abelson noted that the case was a departure for the firm, which usually opposes public officials and fights to keep records open. He accused the Times of working against Scientology by encouraging its attorneys to represent Wood.
"In any other case, the St. Petersburg Times would have been on the other side," Abelson said. "And the fact that they weren't shows their bias . . . Now the Times and their lawyers have egg on their face and I hope it sticks."
He also accused the newspaper of working with the Clearwater Police Department to discredit Scientology.
Paul Tash, executive editor of the Times, called the charges ridiculous.
He said the law firm is known statewide for its expertise on public records issues and represents many other clients besides the Times. Tash said its lead attorney, George Rahdert, talked to him before taking Wood's case. He said the situation presented possible conflicts of interest for Wood and the firm, not the newspaper.
He said the Times' only concern was whether the firm would be available to represent the newspaper regarding the McPherson case if it ever became necessary. He said Rahdert assured him the firm's first priority was the Times.
Tash added: "Like the Church of Scientology, we will be very interested in all the information as it is presented, and we will be there tomorrow to review the records ourselves."
Patricia Anderson, another member of the firm, said Thursday that the records Barker released come to about five pages. She said Wood was pleased with the ruling and feels it won't jeopardize the official investigation.
Wood maintained that all her records in the case were confidential because of the active investigation.
But the church alleged in its lawsuit that Wood waived any right to keep the records closed when she shared her conclusions about the case with reporters.
Weinberg argued that when a public official shares key information about a case, the "horse is out of the barn" and all records on the case must be released.
But Barker said the issue was "how far out?" He opened only those records that Wood made reference to in news interviews.
Copyright 1997 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.