The criminal trial of nine members of the Church of Scientology, scheduled to start yesterday, has been postponed pending the outcome of negotiations between federal prosecutors and church attorneys seeking to avoid a lengthy court case.
U.S. District Judge Charles R. Richey reportedly has told attorneys for both sides in closed hearings that he still intends the trial to begin by next Tuesday at the latest if no agreement is reached.
The negotiations are said to center on a procedure by which the government attorneys will lay out their complete case against the Scientologists in court documents. The judge will then determine whether the church members are guilty or innocent of charges of conspiring to obstruct justice and burglarize government offices.
The rare procedure is usually followed in cases where defendants acknowledge that the government's case against them is strong, but in which the defendants have a legal issue they want to appeal to a higher court. If a defendant pleads guilty, he loses that right to an appeal.
The legal issue in dispute in the Scientologists' is case turns on their belief that the search of their premises in California -- a massive perusal of thousands of court documents by more than 100 FBI agents on July 8, 1977, -- was unconstitutional.
The evidence seized in that raid is being used by the government against the church, and Judge Richey has already upheld the government's conduct of that search, and has ruled that the documents seized can be used as evidence in the criminal trial.
The church attorneys and federal prosecutors have been involved in secret negotiations for the past week, and appeared near agreement Sunday night. However, the negotiations broke down again yesterday.
Yesterday morning, Judge Richey asked the attorneys for the church to submit a proposal in writing to the prosecutors. When the prosecutors received that document, which apparently contained new conditions, the government responded with a counter-offer.
Richey then scheduled a hearing in open court to get a first-hand report, since he must arrange for jurors to be available if the trial does actually begin.
The nine members of the church are charged in a 28-count indictment with planting church spies in government offices to steal files relating to the church, breaking into other government offices, electronically "bugging" one government meeting, and later covering up their activities before a federal grand jury.