Zuckerman Spaeder LLP Wins Pre-Trial Dismissal of High-Profile Criminal Charges Against the Church of Scientology

The criminal prosecution of the Church of Scientology for the alleged abuse and neglect of one of its parishioners ended dramatically when the state of Florida voluntarily dismissed its case, acknowledging that it could not prove the charges against the Church. Morris “Sandy” Weinberg Jr., Lee Fugate and Marcos E. Hasbun of the Tampa office, led the team of attorneys and forensic experts that ultimately persuaded the State that it simply had no case. The road to this resolution was, however, treacherous and hard fought.

In November of 1998, Florida, in a virtually unprecedented decision, charged the Church of Scientology, an organized and tax-exempt religious institution, with the criminal abuse and neglect of a disabled adult and with practicing medicine without a license. The charges arose from the highly publicized 1995 death of a long-time Scientologist named Lisa McPherson at the Church's religious retreat center in Clearwater, Florida, and were the culmination of a nearly three-year investigation of Ms. McPherson's death.

Shortly after Ms. McPherson's death, the Church's attorneys, including Mr. Weinberg and Mr. Fugate, began trying to persuade investigators that Ms. McPherson's death was what the state ultimately concluded it was—the unforeseeable result of a pulmonary embolism caused by a minor automobile accident in which Ms. McPherson was involved 17 days before her death. The state, however, believed that Ms. McPherson died after Church members allowed her to become extremely dehydrated while suffering from a debilitating psychological illness. In the end, the defense team, which also included nationally recognized forensic experts, presented the Medical Examiner's office with indisputable evidence that Ms. McPherson's death was not the result of dehydration. Because of this, the M.E. changed the "cause of death" on her death certificate to accidental and deleted the references to dehydration in its autopsy report. Shortly after this remarkable event, Florida dropped all charges.

Among other difficult issues, the case involved the need to defend the Church aggressively against the criminal charges while at the same time avoiding unfair and negative publicity in the local and national press. This balancing act was particularly difficult in this case because of numerous autopsy photographs. Florida's criminal discovery rules would have allowed these photos to be provided to the press and public if, and only if, the Church requested them as discovery in the criminal case. The Church's defense team also had to balance the demands of the criminal case against its defense of a civil case brought against the Church by an aunt of Ms. McPherson's. The case also involved difficult issues of the First Amendment's intersection with state criminal laws, among others.

Overall, this case provided Zuckerman Spaeder's Tampa office with one of the most challenging defenses in its attorneys' careers, and they responded by assisting in the delivery of an unappealable pre-trial voluntary dismissal of the charges. The case also demonstrates the Tampa office's ability to work with a defense team comprised of highly specialized attorneys and scientists and our ability to handle high-profile cases and to defend concurrent criminal and civil Proceedings.

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Katie Munroe
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