Declaring a mistrial, an Oregon trial judge on Tuesday threw out a $39-million fraud judgment against the Church of Scientology that a jury had awarded in May to a former church member.
In ordering a new trial, Multnomah County Circuit judge Donald Londer said he based his decision on improper, prejudicial and "abusive" statements made during the trial by the lawyer for Julie Christofferson Titchbourne, 27, who contended that she had been defrauded by the church.
Last May, after the jury awarded the $39 million--nearly all of it in punitive damages--to Titchbourne, about 10,000 church members and supporters rallied in Portland to protest, and a handful has continued a vigil there while awaiting post-trial motions pending before the judge.
After Londer issued his 45-minute oral ruling from the bench, about 150 church members in the courtroom, including the Rev. Heber Jentzsch, president of Scientology International, burst into applause.
Jentzsch later said the ruling not only vindicates the church but also should be construed as a judicial warning that " . . . such denigration, such animosity designed to taint the minds of juries cannot be accepted."
During closing arguments at the end of the 11-week trial, Garry McMurry, Titchbourne's attorney, called the church a terrorist group and its founder, L. Ron Hubbard, a sociopath.
Titchbourne's suit alleged that the church had cheated her out of $3,253 by saying it would improve her eyesight, communications skills, intelligence and creativity. Titchbourne joined the church in July, 1975, and left the following April.
Tuesday's ruling was the second time Titchbourne's case had fallen victim to a legal practice that dates back to English law known as remittitur. It allows trial and appellate judges to reduce civil jury awards when they feel the damages are excessive, or to order new trials.
In 1979, the Oregon Court of Appeals overturned a jury award of $2 million for Titchbourne and ordered a second trial.
Subject of Speculation
Whether remittitur is a practice on the wane is the subject of scholarly speculation in legal circles, but that debate gained new momentum in late June when the Missouri Supreme Court abolished the practice altogether in a pair of rulings growing out of the 1981 collapse of a Hyatt Regency Hotel skywalk in Kansas City.
In both those cases, Missouri's highest court restored the full, multimillion dollar jury awards that had been substantially reduced by the trial judges.
McMurry and his client refused to comment Tuesday, as did Judge Londer.
The Church of Scientology claims a membership of 6 million in 35 countries, including 4 million in the United States.
Judge Assumed Blame
During the trial, Londer had ruled that, as a matter of law, Scientology indeed is a religion; but McMurry insisted that that was a question for the jury to decide. The judge Tuesday morning blamed himself for letting that erroneous jury instruction stand.
"I will take the responsibility for that," he said. Londer went on to add: "I think the courts must pay particular attention, closer attention, where issues involving religion and the First Amendment are concerned."
McMurry had maintained that the case was merely one of "common law fraud" and "deceit" and had nothing to do with religious persecution.
Boston attorney Earle Cooley, a member of the defense team, praised Londer's ruling. "It took great courage on his part. We are confident there will be a different decision the next time." Jentzsch was more exuberant. Celebrating in a hotel suite in Portland, he shouted into the telephone receiver, "I don't know whether they (Titchbourne and McMurry) want to try again. They've lost twice, and three strikes you're out."