St. Petersburg Times, Jan. 15, 2003 (Opinion)
By HOWARD TROXLER, Times Columnist
Our own local version of the O.J. Simpson case — meaning that it is undignified, nearly out of control and taking way too long — is the civil lawsuit pending against the Church of Scientology by the estate of Lisa McPherson.
McPherson, 36, died in 1995 in Clearwater under the care of Scientologists who said they were nursing her through a breakdown. The medical examiner first blamed dehydration, but later concluded the death was an accident, a bruise that led to a blood clot.
Was Scientology legally at fault? Or was McPherson’s death simply a terribly unfortunate outcome for which the church should not be blamed?
This is why we have juries.
Unfortunately, there is not much immediate prospect of a jury hearing the case, even though we just passed the seventh anniversary of McPherson’s death.
Instead, the two sides are spending their energy accusing each other of lying, both in and out of court.
The sideshows of the past year have been well-publicized. Bolstered by the conversion of its former critic and bankroller of the lawsuit, Robert Minton, who has now recanted, Scientology has taken the counteroffensive.
The gist of the church’s argument is:
The other side hates us. Because of this hatred, as well as because of the money Minton spent against us, they have made up allegations against us. Therefore this lawsuit should be thrown out before it ever goes to trial.
Or, as church spokesman Ben Shaw said earlier this year: “It’s really outright criminal what has happened in this case. He (Minton) bought the lawsuit, and they’ve been paying people who will say anything.”
Susan Schaeffer, the third judge to hear the case, spent 35 days last year hearing the church’s allegations. The church said either the Tampa attorney representing McPherson’s estate, Ken Dandar, should be removed, or the case dismissed.
But just this week, Schaeffer ruled that Minton’s allegations against his old lawyer Dandar are not credible. The trial — which is scheduled to start next Tuesday — will go on. Scientology almost certainly will appeal, which will delay the trial again.
When the case finally does go to trial, Scientology will be perfectly entitled to question the motives and ill will of the plaintiff’s witnesses. Again, this is why we have juries.
The church did win some major points in Schaeffer’s 67-page ruling. Most importantly, the judge ruled there is no evidence that the church’s worldwide leader, David Miscavige, actually made a decision to let McPherson die, or intended harm to her.
On this point, the plantiffs had argued, thinly, that Miscavige must have been involved. Their witnesses said that was how the system worked.
“He was afforded 35 days of hearing in order to produce one shred of evidence to support it, and he didn’t,” church spokesman Shaw said Tuesday afternoon.
I asked Shaw why the church doesn’t just agree to get the trial over with. Given the medical examiner’s revised conclusions, and Minton’s change of heart, doesn’t the church think it can win?
“Absolutely, of course we can win,” Shaw replied. But he immediately turned back to the subject of Dandar, saying that the case is tangled up with various fees and judgments that Dandar and the McPherson estate owe to the church organization.
Dandar, for his part, called the church’s attacks on him irrelevant to the central issue. “They’ve spent more on trying to get me than the trial,” he told me, adding: “The jury is going to decide why Lisa McPherson died.”
There have been more than 200 depositions taken in this case, thousands of pages of record generated, at least seven or eight scheduled trial dates and three judges. The parties are locked in a bitter enmity that has superseded the underlying issue.
Dandar said he thinks the church is trying to wear him down, to see how long he can last.
How long is that, I asked?
“As long as I have breath.”