Mar 4, 2000 - 12:29 AM
Judge in Scientology case won't remove himself
By DAVID SOMMER
CLEARWATER - The judge presiding over the criminal case against the Church of Scientology in the death of Lisa McPherson refused to remove himself Friday despite church lawyers' claims he is biased. Pasco-Pinellas Circuit Judge Brandt Downey also refused to put the case on hold while the church asks an appeals court to remove him.
Downey then held a second hearing in which he ruled in favor of the church and against The Tampa Tribune. The newspaper is seeking the release of an estimated 10,000 pages of police reports and and other documents from the investigation of McPherson's December 1995 death.
In a surprise motion filed late Thursday, church lawyers said Downey should step down because he has been a mental health advocate. Also, they said, Downey's former law partners represented church critics and actively campaigned against the church's presence in Clearwater during the 1970s and 1980s.
The McPherson criminal case hinges on the church's strong opposition to the practices of psychiatry and psychology, defense attorney Sandy Weinberg said Friday.
``The beliefs of religion are on trial in this case,'' the defense attorney said.
The suggestion that a judge must be sympathetic to Scientology's beliefs in order to preside over the McPherson case is not a legitimate reason to seek Downey's removal, Assistant State Attorney Doug Crow argued.
``They are not entitled to manipulate the court system to require a judge whose beliefs match theirs,'' Crow said.
Crow called the church's complaint about Downey's former partners ``guilt by association, innuendo and speculation.''
The church's Flag Service Organization is charged with practicing medicine without a license and abuse of a disabled adult.
McPherson, 36, died after spending 17 days inside the church's spiritual headquarters, the Fort Harrison Hotel in downtown Clearwater.
She was taken there following a minor traffic accident after she disrobed and began walking naked down the street. Police initially took McPherson to a downtown hospital, but she soon checked out when church officials intervened.
Prosecutors contend McPherson was denied licensed physical and mental health care and instead was restrained and force-fed prescription medication before her death from a blood clot in her lungs.