PORTLAND, Ore. -- Jubilant Church of Scientology members called a judge's rejection of a $39 million fraud award a victory for freedom of religion, but the attorney for the ex-member who brought suit vowed to continue the fight.
Multnomah County Circuit Judge Donald Londer voided a $39 million fraud verdict against the church Tuesday, declaring a mistrial in the suit by former member Julie Christofferson Titchbourne, 27, who was not in the courtroom.
In a ruling frequently critical of his own conduct during the 11-week trial, Londer said the case had gone astray from the fraud accusations leveled by Titchbourne and had become an attack on the Church of Scientology itself.
The judge also said Titchbourne's lawyer, Garry McMurry, violated the judge's instructions by telling jurors in his closing arguments that Scientology is not a religion. Londer said the Oregon Court of Appeals previously ruled that Scientology is a religion.
The judge also took McMurry to task for comparing Scientology to totalitarian communism and referring to church founder L. Ron Hubbard as a 'warped sociopath.'
Titchbourne, who left Scientology after undergoing 'deprogramming,' sued the church on grounds she was bilked of $3,203 paid for courses that were suppose to improve her eyesight, intelligence and study habits.
Church attorneys argued the courses were religious in nature and Titchbourne knew she was becoming involved with a religion.
'I'm the happiest man found anywhere,' said Earle Cooley, the flamboyant Boston attorney who had defended the church. Cooley said he expected the Tichbourne case would be retried in about two months 'after the prejudice and passion cools down.'
'It took great courage on his part,' Cooley said of Londer's decision. 'The Constitution has been vindicated in the hands of a great civil libertarian.'
McMurry had little to say as he left the courthouse but said of the ruling, 'We were surprised.' Asked how he would do in another trial, he replied, 'Great.' He also said he will decide what to do next within 30 days, adding only, 'We will have something filed.'
The jury's May 17 verdict followed the second trial of Titchbourne's claims. Another jury awarded her $2 million in a 1979 trial, but that judgment was overturned three years later by the Oregon Court of Appeals.
Church members this summer staged a two-month 'Religious Freedom Crusade' in Portland that drew more than 10,000 people to the city for rallies, demonstrations and concerts.
The cast of demonstrators included show business personalities such as actor John Travolta and jazz musician Chick Corea, who gave several free concerts.
About 100 people who packed the courtroom whooped and hollered when the judge announced the mistrial Tuesday. Another cheer went up from a Scientology 'choir' dressed in white robes that had been singing 'We Shall Overcome' in the park across the street from the courthouse.