A Times Editorial

A cry for justice

Despite a reversal in the autopsy report of Lisa McPherson, the state

attorney still has an obligation to prosecute those his office believes to

be responsible in her death in a Scientology hotel room.

St. Petersburg Times

March 3, 2000

The tragedy of Lisa McPherson's death in a Scientology hotel room has

turned into a sad, convoluted mess that cries out for justice.

An unexplained reversal by Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner Joan Wood has

prosecutors reviewing their case and raises questions about Wood's

competence. Meanwhile, sworn statements by Scientologists paint a

disturbing picture of McPherson's final days and raise this question: Why

was no individual charged with a crime?

Under pressure from experts hired by the Church of Scientology, Wood

quietly amended her autopsy report on Feb. 16. The manner of McPherson's

death was changed from "undetermined" to "accident." Wood also removed one

cause of death ("bed rest and severe dehydration") and added a new

significant condition ("psychosis and history of auto accident").

While Wood's final diagnosis that McPherson died in 1995 from a blood clot

that moved from her leg to her lung did not change, the new version was

gleefully embraced by Scientology officials.

Facing two felony charges -- abuse of a disabled adult and practicing

medicine without a license -- Scientology has spared no expense to cast

doubt on the facts in the case. Church officials contend that the blood

clot was caused by a bruise suffered in a minor automobile accident rather

than McPherson's treatment during 17 days of forced isolation at the

church's downtown Clearwater hotel. A Scientology press release called

Wood's altered opinion "extremely significant and a huge development that

dramatically affects the state's case."

Wood certainly surprised the state attorney's office. The new autopsy

report is "something of major significance we need to review," said

Assistant State Attorney Doug Crow.

Amid the doubt, this much is clear: Wood owes the residents of Pinellas

County an explanation; and State Attorney Bernie McCabe still needs to

prosecute those his office determines to be responsible in McPherson's

suffering and death.

The medical examiner's policy of considering new, credible evidence is

valid. But in the McPherson case, Wood either made a serious mistake on

her original autopsy report or she let Scientology's unrelenting pressure

weaken her resolve. Either choice raises doubts about Wood's competence,

and because she has not responded to questions about the amended report,

we are left to wonder.

No doubt remains that McPherson was ill served by her Scientology


Following a minor auto accident, McPherson acted strangely and was taken

to a nearby hospital emergency room. Other Scientology members quickly

retrieved her and placed her in a hotel room, where the psychotic woman

was isolated, held down while being force-fed homemade concoctions and

given prescribed medication without seeing a doctor. After 17 days, gaunt

and unresponsive, McPherson was delivered to a hospital an hour away. When

a doctor saw her, she was already dead.

McCabe chose to charge the Church of Scientology in Clearwater rather than

individual church members. That decision raises questions after reading

several Scientologists' sworn statements:

Alain Kartuzinski, a senior church staff member, ordered McPherson's

isolation and authorized medication without a doctor's approval. Then he

lied to police about his involvement.

Janis Johnson, a church medical officer and unlicensed doctor, was seen

giving McPherson injections of a prescription muscle relaxant that had not

been authorized by a doctor. She also lied to police.

David Houghton, a dentist, helped administer medication, including forcing

crushed aspirin and Benadryl down her throat with a large syringe.

David Minkoff, a church member and doctor in Pasco County, prescribed

drugs for McPherson over the phone without examining the patient. By the

time he saw her, she was dead.

Changing a few words on the autopsy report does not change the tragic

events that unfolded in a darkened Scientology hotel room. Whatever caused

the blood clot that killed McPherson, timely medical care would have given

her a chance to survive.

No matter how many experts the Church of Scientology hires or how much

pressure they put on public officials, a jury should decide if someone

committed a crime in the death of Lisa McPherson.