Division in the M.E.'s Office

By THOMAS C. TOBIN, Times Staff Writer
ęSt. Petersburg Times, published July 2, 1997

CLEARWATER -- Some cracks may have opened in the medical examiner's controversial account of how Scientologist Lisa McPherson died.

In a recent sworn statement, the doctor who first examined McPherson's body for the medical examiner's office did not support several conclusions his boss reached when she publicly suggested the young woman died of severe neglect.

Pinellas Medical Examiner Joan Wood wrote an autopsy report stating McPherson died of a blood clot in her left lung, brought on by excessive bed rest and severe dehydration.

Later, Wood elaborated, telling reporters that McPherson went without water for five to 10 days before her death and was unconscious for up to 48 hours and that red marks on McPherson's hands and wrists probably were cockroach bites.

Wood's conclusions are at the heart of a criminal investigation by Clearwater police, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office.

Those conclusions are based, however, on test results and other findings from an autopsy performed by Dr. Robert D. Davis, an associate medical examiner who has since left Wood's office. In eight hours of testimony in a related lawsuit against the Church of Scientology, Davis said:

He could not pinpoint, as Wood did, how long McPherson went without fluids.

He could not say whether or how long McPherson was unconscious and does not know of anyone who could.

Key lab readings on McPherson were so abnormal he questioned their accuracy.

He found no evidence on McPherson's body of excessive bed rest and was not consulted before Wood finished the autopsy report.

The red marks on McPherson's hands could have been abrasions as well as cockroach bites.

Wood has not changed her account of McPherson's death. She declined further comment for this story.

Meanwhile, Scientology's attorneys, who have criticized the medical examiner's account, are cheering Davis' testimony.

"It doesn't support one aspect of what Dr. Wood has said. Not one," said Sandy Weinberg, one of several local lawyers representing the church. "Dr. Davis raises all kinds of doubts as to the medical part of this case. . . . It's critical because he's not our witness. He was not retained by us. He has no relationship with the Church of Scientology."

Davis left Wood's office after colleagues and members of the public complained he frequently was abrupt and uncooperative. At the time of the McPherson autopsy, Davis was working under an agreement with Wood that ended his employment in May 1996. Today he is an associate medical examiner in Daytona Beach.

Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe could not be reached to comment on how Davis' testimony might affect the case.

Weinberg and other attorneys for the church acknowledged in a recent interview that their strategy will be to pick apart Wood's conclusions by challenging the validity of lab results from her office and suggesting she has an anti-Scientology bias that may be coloring her decisions in the case.

Their task will be to overshadow and try to explain a sequence of events that raised suspicions in authorities and McPherson's family: that she was in apparent good health when she entered Scientology's Fort Harrison Hotel and that 17 days later, she was dead.

Ken Dandar, the Tampa lawyer representing McPherson's family, said many parts of Davis' testimony support Wood. Dandar said Davis didn't disagree with Wood but simply did not have the expertise to reach the same conclusions.

And, while Davis said he questioned the accuracy of test results on fluids taken from McPherson's body, he also said he did not have enough information to say categorically the results were wrong.

The lab results in question are from eye fluid, which can be an accurate indicator of the body's condition at death. McPherson's eye fluid tested extraordinarily high for sodium and other substances, indicating she was severely dehydrated.

However, Weinberg said the church's medical experts think the readings were so high they cannot be accurate. He also questioned why McPherson's fluid remained in Wood's lab nearly two months before being sent for testing, and suggested it may have been contaminated.

The church's attempt to undercut the eye fluid evidence is a major part of its defense against allegations that Scientologists at the Fort Harrison were responsible for McPherson's death.

If those laboratory test results are correct, they could mean that the lack of moisture in McPherson's body caused her blood to thicken to the point that the blockage formed in the lung.

But if the eye fluid evidence is discounted, what is left is the case of a woman who died of a blocked artery in her left lung, Weinberg said.

Scientology's lawyers will argue that blood clots can form suddenly and without warning. They will note that blood clots can result from injuries, such as the bruises McPherson had, and they will point out that blood clots have killed people even in hospitals.

The church's attorneys also plan to use Davis' testimony to suggest that Wood is biased against Scientology.

Davis said Wood told him she bought her home from a Scientologist and planned to have it swept for monitoring devices after taking on the McPherson case. She suggested Davis do the same.

"That, to me, speaks volumes," Weinberg said.

Dandar said church attorneys are reading far too much into Davis' statements.

"They're going to try to use the same tactics that O.J. Simpson tried to use," he said of the church. "And, fortunately for us, we're not in Hollywood."

Copyright 1997
St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.

return to main Lisa page