CLEARWATER, Fla. (AP) - Prosecutors have dropped abuse and medical neglect charges against the Church of Scientology, saying they couldn't depend on the testimony of the county medical examiner in the case of a woman who died in the church's care.
The church was charged in the 1995 death of Scientologist Lisa McPherson after 17 days in the care of fellow church members following a minor car accident and mental breakdown.
In a memorandum made public Monday, prosecutor Doug Crow said he still thinks a crime occurred, but that medical examiner Joan Wood's credibility would be difficult to defend because she changed the cause of McPherson's death from ``undetermined'' to ``accidental.''
Wood initially said McPherson, 36, died of a blood clot brought on by severe dehydration and bed rest. But in February, Wood dropped those as contributing factors and replaced them with psychosis and the minor auto accident.
Church officials have been fighting to have the charges dropped since they were filed in 1998, challenging the state's case as an infringement on their religious freedoms.
Crow said he still believes prosecuting the church was the right decision, but now the case would be difficult to prove beyond a reasonable doubt.
``While Dr. Wood is an extremely intelligent and knowledgeable expert who is a formidable witness when defending a valid position, her inability to coherently explain her decision even under benign questioning by me is completely perplexing,'' Crow wrote. Scientology spokesman Michael Rinder said the church was pleased with the developments, but has been damaged by the case. ``There was a lot of misinformation and false information that had generated from who knows where,'' Rinder said. ``What we did was we really spent a lot of time and effort to get all the facts out.'' McPherson died on Dec. 5, 1995, 17 days after being involved in a minor car accident. After the fender bender, she got out of the car she was driving, took off all of her clothes and started walking down the street.
Police took her to a hospital but she soon left with Scientology officials, who said they wanted her to avoid psychiatric treatment, which is against church teachings.
She was taken to the Fort Harrison Hotel, the church's headquarters, where she underwent a church-sanctioned process called an Introspection Rundown and was isolated from others. Over the following 21/2 weeks, prosecutors say, she was force-fed medicine, forcibly restrained by church officials and lost up to 57 pounds. Church officials have denied the charges.
The church was founded in 1954 by the late science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard. Celebrities including John Travolta, Tom Cruise and Lisa Marie Presley have publicly promoted the religion. While church officials say worldwide membership is around 9 million, estimates by former members have been much lower.
A separate civil lawsuit filed against the church by McPherson's family continues.