A St. Petersburg Times Editorial Bungling Scientology case
Medical Examiner Joan Wood's mishandling of the autopsy report in the death of Lisa McPherson creates questions of Wood's credibility.
St. Petersburg Times June 14, 2000
It was a sad day Monday in Pinellas County when State Attorney Bernie McCabe dropped all charges against the Church of Scientology in the death of Lisa McPherson.
Sad because the incompetence of Medical Examiner Joan Wood was exposed too late to save an important criminal case.
Sad because McCabe could find no way to bring to justice those who callously allowed McPherson to suffer and die without seeking prompt medical attention for the incapacitated woman.
Sad because the bullying Church of Scientology has won again with its mixture of seemingly unlimited resources and intimidation.
Sadness is not an emotion that will fix what is wrong, however. Pinellas County residents should demand that those who failed their duty in the Lisa McPherson case be held accountable.
They can start with Joan Wood. While Wood has served as Pinellas-Pasco medical examiner since 1982, it is clear that she and her office have slipped in recent years.
When McPherson, a Scientologist in Clearwater, suffered a mental breakdown following a minor automobile accident, fellow Scientologists kept her isolated and sometimes restrained in a hotel room, force-feeding her medicine without a doctor's visit. Seventeen days later, the 36-year-old woman was delivered to a hospital -- dead.
The autopsy was crucial to a criminal prosecution, yet Wood assigned it to a troubled employee whom she distrusted; he quit before the work was completed. Wood then finished the autopsy report, but pressed by Scientology's experts she later changed crucial conclusions in the document.
Her behavior in the case has been erratic, even bizarre. In a memo earlier this year with the subject line "Urgent!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" Wood pleaded with a colleague to support her in the McPherson case -- "Life and career at stake!" she wrote.
After taking a recent sworn statement from Wood, Assistant State Attorney Douglas Crow concluded that "her inability to coherently explain her decision even under benign questioning by me is completely perplexing." And Crow recommended dropping felony charges -- abuse of a disabled adult and practicing medicine without a license -- against the Church of Scientology. "The actions and testimony of Dr. Wood, a forensic witness essential to the state's case, have so muddled the equities and underlying facts in this case. . . that it has undermined what began as a strong legal position," he wrote.
The medical examiner's conduct has spoiled this important case, and it threatens the outcome of others, as well. One defense attorney in an unrelated murder trial has already quizzed Wood about her handling of the McPherson autopsy. And other lawyers, including Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger, are questioning her credibility.
Re-appointment of Wood to another three-year term as medical examiner is awaiting a decision by Gov. Jeb Bush, who should question her fitness for the job.
Wood should not let the issue get that far. Her sense of decency and integrity should tell her the right thing to do is to resign.