Scientology prompts review of death case

By THOMAS C. TOBIN

St. Petersburg Times, published November 24, 1999

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CLEARWATER -- In an unusual step, Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner Joan Wood has agreed to reconsider her conclusions in the 1995 death of Scientologist Lisa McPherson.

Lawyers for the Church of Scientology have given Wood new evidence that, they say, casts doubt on Wood's original opinion: that McPherson was severely dehydrated when she died while in the care of Scientology staffers.

Scientology's evidence includes sworn statements from laboratory  employees involved in the original testing of McPherson's eye fluid, a clear, jelly-like substance used by medical examiners to assess a body's condition at death. It includes other scientific information that, according to the church, shows McPherson's death had nothing to do with dehydration.

Wood said she will review the materials and also has agreed to join a church-hired toxicologist in testing a second sample of McPherson's eye fluid -- about one-fifth of a teaspoon -- which has been stored by Wood's office since the autopsy.

That test could take place as early as next week at a lab near Philadelphia. An expert from Wood's staff will witness the test along  with Dr. Frederic Rieders, a toxicologist who was a defense witness in another case where key scientific evidence was challenged -- the O.J. Simpson prosecution.

"We're in a search here for the truth," Wood said this week. "If the numbers are not right, we need to find that out . . . I think it's to their advantage and ours to get to the bottom of this."

The medical examiner's findings are key elements in two court cases against Scientology. Three years after McPherson's death, the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office charged the church's Clearwater operation with two criminal counts: abuse of a disabled adult and practicing medicine without a license. The church also faces a wrongful death lawsuit filed by McPherson's family.

Doug Crow, the lead prosecutor in the criminal case against Scientology, declined to comment.

One of Scientology's lawyers, Lee Fugate, said if Wood were to alter her original conclusions, "that may change the entire playing field." Wood originally listed the manner of McPherson's death as "undetermined." Wood said it is possible her review could lead to a finding of accidental death.

The review is mandated in Wood's policy manual, which says the medical examiner will "readdress key issues" in a case if "credible new evidence is presented, regardless of its source."

The results of the first eye fluid test in January 1996 showed extraordinarily high readings for sodium and other substances in McPherson's body. Wood's staff did not conduct the test; it was done by  an outside lab.

The high readings prompted Wood to publicly state McPherson likely was unconscious for up to 48 hours before her death and likely went without liquids for five to 10 days. McPherson spent the final 17 days of her life under the care of fellow Scientologists at the church's Fort Harrison Hotel in downtown Clearwater.

Wood told reporters McPherson died slowly, contradicting Scientology lawyers who were saying then that McPherson's death was sudden and caused by a staph infection.

At the time, a Scientology lawyer reacted angrily to Wood's statements, calling the veteran medical examiner "a hateful liar." Also, the church sued Wood seeking her records in the case.

Since receiving some of those records nearly three years ago, the church has argued the test results on McPherson's eye fluid were so high they were not credible.

Church lawyers also argue the eye fluid samples were handled improperly, that the tests were conducted incorrectly and the results contradict other findings in the autopsy.

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