Pathologists say clot killed Scientologist
© Tampa Tribune
Mar 7, 2000
By ROB SHAW
A few years ago, forensic pathologist Michael Baden was a defense witness for O.J. Simpson. On Monday, he went to bat for the Church of Scientology.
Baden, former chief medical examiner for New York City, appeared at a news conference in downtown Clearwater along with Cyril Wecht, a renowned coroner and lawyer in Pittsburgh, to share their views about what killed Lisa McPherson.
They, and six colleagues, have agreed McPherson, a Scientologist for 13 years, died from a blood clot that formed behind her left knee and traveled to her left pulmonary artery, cutting off her oxygen.
Baden and Wecht, who teamed up to write a book on the Simpson case after Baden testified there had to be two killers, said McPherson was suffering from neither malnutrition nor dehydration.
Those conditions were key components of Medical Examiner Joan Wood's findings in McPherson's death Dec. 5, 1995, which occurred 17 days after a minor car accident.
Wood wrote in an autopsy report that McPherson, 36, had nothing to drink for the last five to 10 days of her life and that she was comatose the last day or two.
Wood classified the death as "undetermined," and prosecutors charged the church with practicing medicine without a license and abusing a disabled adult. In late February, Wood changed the classification of McPherson's death to "accidental" after new evidence was submitted from experts hired by the church.
Two of those experts, Baden and Wecht, appeared Monday two blocks from the hotel where McPherson spent the last 17 days of her life. They said it was unusual for them to give their opinions in a forum other than a courtroom but said they had to do it.
"This is Forensic Pathology 101," said Baden, whose resume includes work in the investigations of the deaths of President Kennedy, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., civil rights leader Medgar Evers and actor John Belushi.
"This is not complicated," he said. "Whatever it is, it's not homicide. It's not criminal."
Both men said the clot started to form after McPherson hit her left leg on the driver's side door in the car accident. They said she was physically healthy but would have died even if she was in the care of a hospital instead of at the Fort Harrison Hotel, the church's spiritual headquarters.
"This is a very common cause of death in America," said Wecht, who also has written a book about the murder of 6-year-old JonBenet Ramsey. "It remains a major problem in medicine."
Both men said they were not working for free for the church, but they would not disclose how much they were being paid. During Simpson's trial, Baden testified he was paid $1,500 a day instead of his customary $2,500 to $3,000 fee because of Simpson's dwindling financial resources.
Wecht said Monday he was amused and offended by ysuggestions that Scientology officials were paying the pair to say what the church wanted to hear.
"It is not a ploy or some kind of fictional ruse," he said.
Wood's change in the classification of McPherson's death casts doubt on the two criminal charges in Clearwater and on a civil case pending in Tampa. A hearing on a motion by the church to dismiss the criminal charges will be rMonday in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court.
Rob Shaw covers Pinellas County and can be reached at (727) 799-7413 or at firstname.lastname@example.org