County Brainwashing Dispute Remains Snarled in Courts

Times Staff Writer

More than a decade after Marcia George first took the Hare Krishna sect to court for "brainwashing" her runaway daughter, the Cypress woman has still not collected a penny of the millions of dollars that a jury awarded her family 4 years ago.

And if the Krishnas prevail, she never will.

While negotiating the labyrinth of legal maneuverings and appeals that have consumed the case for 11 years, attorneys on both sides have said the frustration of one woman and her daughter has become largely overshadowed by broader legal issues of religious freedom and psychological manipulation.

"How will anybody practice Krisha consciousness if this decision is upheld?" asked David M. Liberman, an attorney for the International Society of Krishna Consciousness and a follower of the sect.

"The stakes are very high for us. We will take this case as far and as high as we have to, because if we lose, that means (the Krishnas) will no longer be able to practice our religion in the state of California.

"We are not about to give up this fight. This goes beyond money; it's about our survival."

Right now, the battle is being waged at the state Court of Appeal in San Diego, where the Krishnas are trying to overturn a $9.7-million award to Marcia George and her daughter, Robin.

A jury in Santa Ana originally awarded the family $32.5 million in June, 1983. The 5-month trial included testimony that the Krishnas used psychological tactics to coerce Robin, then 15, to join the Laguna Beach Krishna temple, where she first became interested in the sect at age 14.

The sect is accused of then spiriting her away to San Diego, New Orleans and Canada during a 1-year period in the mid-1970s. A judge later slashed that verdict to $9.7 million.

The appellate court in San Diego was to have heard oral arguments in the case this week. But the court postponed that hearing until Dec. 18 to allow attorneys time to offer their views about the impact of a major state Supreme Court decision on the George case.

In a decision handed down earlier this month, the high court upheld the right of a former member of Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church to sue the church, alleging "brainwashing" tactics in its recruiting.

Both sides in the George case said that Supreme Court decision will help their side in the controversy.

Louis E. Goebel, an attorney for the Georges, said the decision confirms that a religious group cannot use the First Amendment as a shield to protect itself against allegations of coercive recruiting.

A co-counsel for the Georges, Lynde Selden, said he is confident that the appellate court will also hold that the church's religious beliefs and recruiting practices are independent issues.

"It is not a part of (the Krishna) religion," he said, "to steal a child from her parents, hide her away, lie to police and smuggle her out of the state and the country. So punishing them for doing that is not infringing on their religious beliefs."

But Liberman, representing the Krishnas, argued that the state Supreme Court decision helps his case by differentiating between physical and psychological manipulation.

The Krishna attorney contended that Robin George, unlike the young man suing the Moon church, was never physically forced to do anything or held captive, and had full knowledge of the Krishna religion and its core practices.

Nonetheless, he called the Supreme Court decision "a tragedy" for constitutional principles and added that he is not confident of winning at the state appellate level, given what he called bias and prejudice against "Krishna consciousness" in society and in the courts.

While the case continues to be fought in courtrooms by the battalions of lawyers involved through the years--several dozen at last count--Marcia George and her daughter, now 28 and married, wait. Their attorneys would not allow the Georges to talk about the case because it is pending.

The Georges' attorneys said the lengthy and complex case has often been as frustrating for them as it has for the family.

"One of the things that's always tough for lawyers to explain is why the judicial system moves so slowly, and I don't have a good answer for that," Selden said.

Even with a decade already passed in the suit, lawyers said they can give the Georges no guarantees when, if ever, they will see any money.

But Selden said he presses on with the suit because "it's a righteous case. I have a kid, and it's scary to think about what happened to (Robin George). I don't think anybody should get away with what the Krishnas did to her."

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