A Times Editorial
A cry for justice
Despite a reversal in the autopsy report of Lisa McPherson, the state
attorney still has an obligation to prosecute those his office believes to
be responsible in her death in a Scientology hotel room.
St. Petersburg Times
March 3, 2000
The tragedy of Lisa McPherson's death in a Scientology hotel room has
turned into a sad, convoluted mess that cries out for justice.
An unexplained reversal by Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner Joan Wood has
prosecutors reviewing their case and raises questions about Wood's
competence. Meanwhile, sworn statements by Scientologists paint a
disturbing picture of McPherson's final days and raise this question: Why
was no individual charged with a crime?
Under pressure from experts hired by the Church of Scientology, Wood
quietly amended her autopsy report on Feb. 16. The manner of McPherson's
death was changed from "undetermined" to "accident." Wood also removed one
cause of death ("bed rest and severe dehydration") and added a new
significant condition ("psychosis and history of auto accident").
While Wood's final diagnosis that McPherson died in 1995 from a blood clot
that moved from her leg to her lung did not change, the new version was
gleefully embraced by Scientology officials.
Facing two felony charges -- abuse of a disabled adult and practicing
medicine without a license -- Scientology has spared no expense to cast
doubt on the facts in the case. Church officials contend that the blood
clot was caused by a bruise suffered in a minor automobile accident rather
than McPherson's treatment during 17 days of forced isolation at the
church's downtown Clearwater hotel. A Scientology press release called
Wood's altered opinion "extremely significant and a huge development that
dramatically affects the state's case."
Wood certainly surprised the state attorney's office. The new autopsy
report is "something of major significance we need to review," said
Assistant State Attorney Doug Crow.
Amid the doubt, this much is clear: Wood owes the residents of Pinellas
County an explanation; and State Attorney Bernie McCabe still needs to
prosecute those his office determines to be responsible in McPherson's
suffering and death.
The medical examiner's policy of considering new, credible evidence is
valid. But in the McPherson case, Wood either made a serious mistake on
her original autopsy report or she let Scientology's unrelenting pressure
weaken her resolve. Either choice raises doubts about Wood's competence,
and because she has not responded to questions about the amended report,
we are left to wonder.
No doubt remains that McPherson was ill served by her Scientology
Following a minor auto accident, McPherson acted strangely and was taken
to a nearby hospital emergency room. Other Scientology members quickly
retrieved her and placed her in a hotel room, where the psychotic woman
was isolated, held down while being force-fed homemade concoctions and
given prescribed medication without seeing a doctor. After 17 days, gaunt
and unresponsive, McPherson was delivered to a hospital an hour away. When
a doctor saw her, she was already dead.
McCabe chose to charge the Church of Scientology in Clearwater rather than
individual church members. That decision raises questions after reading
several Scientologists' sworn statements:
Alain Kartuzinski, a senior church staff member, ordered McPherson's
isolation and authorized medication without a doctor's approval. Then he
lied to police about his involvement.
Janis Johnson, a church medical officer and unlicensed doctor, was seen
giving McPherson injections of a prescription muscle relaxant that had not
been authorized by a doctor. She also lied to police.
David Houghton, a dentist, helped administer medication, including forcing
crushed aspirin and Benadryl down her throat with a large syringe.
David Minkoff, a church member and doctor in Pasco County, prescribed
drugs for McPherson over the phone without examining the patient. By the
time he saw her, she was dead.
Changing a few words on the autopsy report does not change the tragic
events that unfolded in a darkened Scientology hotel room. Whatever caused
the blood clot that killed McPherson, timely medical care would have given
her a chance to survive.
No matter how many experts the Church of Scientology hires or how much
pressure they put on public officials, a jury should decide if someone
committed a crime in the death of Lisa McPherson.