Scientology trial moved to October

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Attorneys on both sides agree that the complex case will not be ready for trial in March. The trial is set to last five weeks.

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By THOMAS C. TOBIN

St. Petersburg Times, published December 22, 1999

 

ST. PETERSBURG -- Already in its fifth year, the prolonged legal drama over the death of Scientologist Lisa McPherson just got longer.

A criminal trial has been delayed seven months as prosecutors and lawyers for the Church of Scientology find themselves mired in what is becoming an extraordinarily complex case. The trial now is scheduled for Oct. 16.

McPherson died Dec. 5, 1995, after 17 days in the care of Scientology staffers in Clearwater. The church's Clearwater branch has been charged with abuse and illegally practicing medicine on her.

But it is more than the typical death case as lawyers argue issues that go well beyond the circumstances of McPherson's death.

Scientology is arguing in part that the prosecution is burdening the church and its members as they try to practice their religion, an alleged violation of the First Amendment and the Florida Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1998. They say the case should be dismissed.

In response, the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office argues that neither the First Amendment nor state law gives people the right to break the law under the guise of religion. They argue that McPherson's treatment, which included forced medication and being held against her will, had nothing to do with Scientology's religious practice.

In addition, Scientology has challenged the findings of Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner Joan Wood, whose office did the autopsy on McPherson. Now, at Scientology's urging, Wood has agreed to review the case.

The case likely will revolve around complicated medical evidence and a range of constitutional issues, including some promising to break new legal ground.

So much work lies ahead for defense lawyers and prosecutors that the March 6 trial date seemed "no longer viable," the church said Tuesday.

When the state attorney's office did not object, Chief Judge Susan Schaeffer reset the trial. It is scheduled to last five weeks.

 

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