State drops Scientology charges

Missteps and inconsistent statements by the chief medical examiner in the death of Lisa McPherson led prosecutors to drop criminal charges Monday against the Church of Scientology.

Prosecutors say they still believe McPherson died as the result of neglect at the hands of fellow church members. But the credibility of Pasco-Pinellas Medical Examiner Joan Wood is so poor following her decision to change McPherson's autopsy report that charges of abusing a disabled person and practicing medicine without a license cannot be sustained, State Attorney Bernie McCabe said Monday.

McCabe stopped short of saying Wood had compromised her ability to remain on the job.

``This is one case in a long career of good work,'' he said.

McCabe's decision to drop charges came after a four-month review of the evidence. It began after Wood suddenly changed her autopsy findings to say that McPherson's death was accidental rather than the result of dehydration and too much bed rest while in the care of church officials.

``The ability of Dr. Wood to testify authoritatively and credibly in this case has been undermined by her own actions in changing the death certificate, and by her inability to persuasively explain that decision,'' McCabe's assistant, Doug Crow, wrote in a June 9 memorandum recommending that charges be dropped.

Church officials hailed McCabe's decision but said blaming Wood while asserting that McPherson's death was preventable amounts to a self-serving rationalization in a case that never should have been brought.

``There were big lies in this case from the beginning,'' said senior church official Marty Rathbun. Anyone familiar with the facts knows McPherson died as the result of a blood clot caused by an traffic accident, he said.

Church members have been humiliated and stigmatized by the case and are looking forward to moving on now that the felony charges have been dismissed, Rathbun said.

``We really think it's a watershed event between an old era of distrust and misunderstandings and a new era of moving forward with the community.''

McPherson, a longtime church member, died in December 1995 after 17 days in isolation at the church's spiritual headquarters, the Fort Harrison Hotel in downtown Clearwater.

She had been in a minor traffic accident on Nov. 18, 1995, and was initially taken to a hospital after she disrobed and began walking down the street. Church officials subsequently took over her care because their religion abhors traditional psychological and psychiatric treatments.

Wood initially found that McPherson, 26, died of a blood clot in the lungs caused by forced bed rest and severe, prolonged dehydration. In February, more than a year after the criminal charges were filed, Wood changed the autopsy report to say the death was accidental and that the blood clot was caused by a bruise suffered in the traffic accident - conforming with the opinion of experts retained by the church.

Wood left town after making the change and later said she would not talk about it until the case concluded.

But Monday, Wood maintained her silence. An assistant said her explanation is contained in a June 1 sworn statement given to prosecutors.

Crow, however, repeatedly faulted Wood for her inability to explain herself during that almost 2 1/2 hour statement.

Problems in the case began with her decision to let an assistant handle the initial autopsy, even though Wood had previously tried to fire him for incompetence, Crow wrote.

Since then, Wood has made inconsistent statements, released confidential information and even allowed herself to be interviewed on a nationally syndicated, tabloid- style television show, he said.

``While nothing in the review has caused me to believe that the central premises behind the prosecution are erroneous, our ability to establish these necessary facts beyond a reasonable doubt has clearly been compromised,'' Crow wrote. Wood's ``inability to coherently explain her decision, even under benign questioning by me, is completely perplexing.''

Chief Circuit Judge Susan Schaeffer, who was presiding over the case, said McCabe's decision to drop the charges spared her from having to decide whether the attempt to prosecute a church rather than charge individual members is a violation of the U.S. Constitution's guarantee of freedom of religion.

As for Wood's future, the situation ``is too complex for me to say whether she's washed up,'' Schaeffer said. ``There is no question in my mind that her effectiveness as a witness has suffered because of this.''

After her death, McPherson's family in Texas filed a civil lawsuit against the church that remains pending in Hillsborough Circuit Court.

Dell Liebreich, McPherson's aunt and closest living relative, said Monday she was disappointed that charges had been dropped.

``They didn't have them charged with much to start with,'' Liebreich said.

Wood, she said, may have caved in to pressure from church investigators.

``I feel for her. I'm sure they wore her down one way or another. She was too staunch in what she believed'' at the outset of the case, Liebreich said.

McCabe said he did not believe Wood changed the autopsy as a result of anything unrelated to the case. But he said Crow's written comments on the matter speak for themselves.

``The church had suggested that, if forced to litigate the issues, the proceedings would reveal information extremely damaging to Wood's office and her career,'' Crow wrote. ``It is apparent that this unique set of circumstances coalesced to put what Wood characterizes as tremendous pressure upon her and may have impacted the quality of her judgment.''

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