CLEARWATER, Fla., June 13--State Attorney Bernie McCabe's weekendreading was a memo by his chief assistant urging him to drop the firstcriminal charges ever filed in the United States against the Church ofScientology.
The 31-page document was filled with medical words that McCabe had neverheard, but its essence was all too clear: The star prosecution witness,Medical Examiner Joan Wood, really didn't know why Scientologist LisaMcPherson died in 1995 while in the care of Scientology staffers inClearwater. It said she had botched the case beyond repair.
When McCabe arrived at his office Monday morning, he remained undecided.He read the memo one more time before the weight of its words finallysank in. Then, "I realized I had nowhere to go," he said Monday evening. "Youjust have to do the right thing and let the chips fall where they may." Just before lunch, the veteran prosecutor had written "OK" atop the memowith a scrawled note that instructed its writer, Assistant StateAttorney Douglas Crow, to drop two felony criminal charges against thechurch's Clearwater operation: abuse of a disabled adult and practicingmedicine without a license.
It was a quiet ending to a case that took police two years toinvestigate and prosecutors two years to prepare before it evaporatedMonday just four months before the scheduled trial. Over that time, Scientology spent millions of dollars in its defense andfelt the sting of its critics, who took to the Internet and spread thenews of McPherson's death around the world.
They formed a Scientology "watchdog group" in the church's back yard inClearwater. They began annual protests outside the Fort Harrison Hotel,the Scientology retreat where church staffers tried for 17 days to nurseMcPherson through a psychotic episode before she died of a blood clot inher left lung.
One critic, millionaire Robert Minton, who moved to Clearwater to formthe watchdog group, continues to finance a wrongful death lawsuitbrought by McPherson's family against the church.
Stories about McPherson's death have appeared on major televisionnetworks and in newspapers across the world, damaging Scientology'srecruitment efforts, even straining its hold on some existing memberswho questioned their church's role in her death.
Over time, the death of Lisa McPherson, who was 36, mushroomed into oneof the major crises in Scientology's 44-year history--a problem soconsuming many top church officials spent nearly all their time buildinga defense.
Although the civil case is still pending in Hillsborough County CircuitCourt, McCabe ended Scientology's biggest headache--the criminalprosecution--with one stroke of his pen.
"It's not a celebration, I would describe it more as a sense of relief,"said Marty Rathbun, a top church official who normally deals withecclesiastical matters but in recent years has been thrown into battleas a defense strategist.
"It's a big milestone," Rathbun said. If anything good came of the case,he said, it was that it prompted Scientology to accelerate efforts toimprove its relations in Clearwater.
Scientology's worldwide leader, David Miscavige, was in Clearwater onMonday but declined an interview request.
Crow, the assistant prosecutor, placed the blame squarely with JoanWood, the veteran medical examiner, who in 1997 broke her usual practiceof discussing cases only in court.
McPherson died on Dec. 5, 1995, after 17 days at the Fort HarrisonHotel. A group of Scientology staffers had taken her to a hospital 45minutes away to see a fellow Scientologist working in a New Port Richeyemergency room.
She was dead on arrival and Clearwater police began to investigate thenext day. When the case became public in December 1996, church officialscalled the death an accident, said McPherson was at the Fort Harrisonfor "rest and relaxation" and was free to come and go.
Saying Scientology officials were misleading the public, Wood told localnewspaper reporters and the TV show Inside Edition that McPherson wasnot given fluids for five to 10 days and was unconscious up to 48 hoursbefore she died.
Scientology's own internal logs would later show that the church'sinitial characterizations were untrue, and that McPherson grew so weakwhile at the Fort Harrison she was unable to stand on her own three daysbefore her death.
Still, Wood's early statements damaged her relationship withprosecutors, left her open to lawsuits from Scientology and painted herinto a legal corner, Crow said in his memo to McCabe.
Crow described Wood's more recent statements on the case as "illogical,"fluctuating and inconsistent. He questioned her memory and her judgment,adding her actions leave prosecutors unable to prove the case againstthe church beyond a reasonable doubt.