Official, Scientology take battle to court


St. Petersburg Times, published February 14, 1997

CLEARWATER - In interviews with reporters last month, medical examiner Joan Wood shared sensitive information about the unexplained death of Lisa McPherson, a 36-year-old Scientologist.

Her attorney disclosed in court Thursday that Wood took the unusual step to counteract what she thought were the Church of Scientology's "public lies'' about McPherson's death.

McPherson died in December 1995 after spending 17 days in Scientology's Fort Harrison Hotel. When the case became public two months ago, church officials said she suddenly took ill one day and quickly died of a severe staph infection.

"Dr. Wood responded to that deliberate misstatement," said Patricia Anderson, Wood's attorney. According to Anderson, Wood now says she spoke with reporters in January to get the word out about her findings, which contradict the church's account.

Wood, who handles death cases in Pinellas and Pasco counties, told reporters about test results that show McPherson deteriorated slowly, that she went without water for five to 10 days, that she was unconscious for up to two days and was bitten by cockroaches. She disclosed the information in interviews with the Inside Edition television show, the St. Petersburg Times and the Tampa Tribune.

Now the Church of Scientology is suing Wood to force her to open her entire confidential file on the case. Scientology has recruited a team of medical experts who want to pore over documents and conduct their own tests on body fluids, organs and tissue samples collected during the autopsy on McPherson.

Church officials say the medical team's findings would be part of a separate Scientology-led investigation to fight a case they say is being tried in the media.

Wood has declined to release her files, citing an investigation into McPherson's death by the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and Clearwater police.

In a hearing on the case Thursday before Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Bob Barker, church attorney Sandy Weinberg argued that once a public official releases some information from her files, she should be made to release all of it.

Wood made "extraordinary disclosures about every nook and cranny of her scientific work," Weinberg said. "Once she has made that decision, for whatever reason, the horse is out of the barn, so to speak."

He cited a Palm Beach case in which a judge opened a medical examiner's confidential files after investigators from other agencies disclosed sensitive information about a death case.

Anderson, who also represents the Times on First Amendment issues, said giving Scientology access to Wood's files would put key evidence in the hands of people who want to thwart the investigation.

"It would be unprecedented in this state to open a file at this early stage in the investigation, where a suspect has not been identified," she said. "It's too big a risk with very little benefit, other than the public relations benefit to the church. . . . They want to do it by using investigative tools which they have no right to."

She said the church has a history of "taking unusual actions to defend itself." She was referring to Scientology's heavy use of lawsuits and private investigators to counter critics.

She said decisions about releasing such records should be made with those considerations in mind.

Weinberg responded: "If it's public, it's public . . . regardless of who in the public is asking for it."

That caused Judge Barker to worry about the consequences.

If he ordered Wood's records released, "Wouldn't every ghoul in the county want to go and rummage through this stuff?" Barker asked. "How is a situation like this managed?"

He said he would make a ruling soon.

Copyright 1997 St. Petersburg Times.