Scientologists argue for accessBy CHERYL WALDRIP of The Tampa Tribune
CLEARWATER - A judge heard arguments Thursday about whether the Church of Scientology and others have a right to medical evidence in the investigation of the death of a Scientologist.
Scientology attorney Morris Weinberg argued that samples of Lisa McPherson's body tissues and fluids constitute ``public records'' under Florida's open records act.
He said Scientologists and everyone else have a right to those and to most of Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner Joan Wood's documents related to McPherson because Wood released autopsy findings and later discussed them with reporters.
Weinberg suggested the findings essentially accuse the church of responsibility in McPherson's death.
``She talked about all her conclusions. ... She talked about everything,'' Weinberg said. ``Whatever exemption there ever was is gone.''
Wood's attorney, Patricia Fields Anderson, said Wood discussed the medical evidence in response to ``lies'' from Scientology officials.
``Did Dr. Wood do wrong by responding to the church's public lies?'' Anderson asked. ``She has a right to do that. She opened the autopsy report ... and that's all. She did not open up all of her records.''
Weinberg said Wood is obligated to make publicly available administrative records, notes, drafts of the autopsy report, laboratory results, autopsy photographs, tissue samples and slides, samples of blood, urine and other fluids.
Wood determined that McPherson, 36, died of a blood clot brought on by ``severe dehydration and bed rest.'' She spent the last 17 days of her life in downtown Clearwater at the Fort Harrison Hotel, Scientology's spiritual headquarters.
Anderson told Circuit Court Judge Bob Barker that the medical examiner's documents in this case are exempt under the public records law because they are part of a continuing investigation by Wood's office, the Clearwater Police Department, the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
Scientology, she said, has a stake in ``aborting'' the investigation.
``This is the owner of the premises where this woman died,'' Anderson said. ``They want to root around through the specimens.''
She also said if someone were indicted in the case, having outsiders handle the evidence could ruin its credibility.
``Imagine Jane Doe gets indicted for manslaughter in the death of Lisa McPherson, and her lawyer finds out that the samples have been messed up by Scientology testing,'' she said.
Weinberg said Anderson's suggestions that the evidence could be compromised by church representatives were offensive and said the medical examiner's office would carefully supervise the inspection process.
``To review under a microscope a slide doesn't destroy that evidence,'' he said.
If the church has the right to handle the evidence, everyone else will, too, Anderson said.
Anderson argued that physical evidence is not a ``public record'' under the law. Weinberg disagreed, saying the law defines ``records'' broadly.
In a motion for judgment on the pleadings, Anderson argued that Scientology didn't use the accepted legal route - a writ of mandamus - for seeking enforcement of the public records law. Barker denied that motion.
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