Scientology medical abuse trial delayed 7 months
Thursday, December 23, 1999
ST. PETERSBURG - The legal drama that began with the 1995 death of Scientologist Lisa McPherson just got a little longer.
The criminal trial has been delayed seven months, because lawyers are mired in legal issues that go far beyond the circumstances of McPherson's death, the St. Petersburg Times reported.
The trial, originally set to start March 6, is now scheduled for Oct. 16.
McPherson, 36, 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.
Scientology has argued the case should be dismissed. In part, its lawyers say 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.
The Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office has argued that neither the First Amendment nor state law gives people the right to break the law under the guise of religion. Prosecutors argue that McPherson's treatment, which included forced medication and being held against her will, had nothing to do with Scientology's religious practice.
Scientology has also 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.
When the charges were filed in December 1998, church officials acknowledged that mistakes were made in McPherson's care. They also expressed a desire to "resolve" the case before trial and "move on."
McPherson's family has also filed a civil suit against the church and its world leader, David Miscavige. That case, first filed in 1997, also promises to be a long legal battle, particularly with the addition of Miscavige as a defendant earlier this month.
A five-week trial has been scheduled for June, but Scientology attorneys say it is likely to be postponed. Ken Dandar, attorney for the McPherson family, has maintained that the civil case should proceed as scheduled.
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