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Legal Turmoil Continues in Suit Against Krishnas

August 18, 1986|JOHN SPANO | Times Staff Writer

Marcia George searched for seven months before she found her runaway daughter, Robin, in a Hare Krishna temple in Canada--and she waited another six years to win a $32-million verdict from a jury which found that the Krishnas had brainwashed Robin.

A judge later reduced that award to $9.7 million. She still is waiting to collect.

The lengthy legal process is beginning to wear on George, 68, of Cypress, who sued the International Society of Krishna Consciousness of California on behalf of herself and her daughter in October, 1977. She has taken a part-time secretarial job because her Social Security benefits won't cover the bills.

"We haven't gotten a penny," George said. "We're just pouring more money into the appeal."

The original lawsuit--which alleged that Robin George was captive of the Krishna sect from November, 1974, until November, 1975--has grown into two lawsuits, with appeals and other legal maneuvers that seem interminable to George and her daughter. The second suit is a battle over identifying property owned by the Hare Krishna society that could be used to pay off the $9.7-million award.

A decision by the state Court of Appeal in the massive case, involving battalions of lawyers, probably won't come before 1988, the Georges' attorneys say. Then comes the almost inevitable Supreme Court appeal.

Melvin Feldman, a trustee appointed to hold Krishna assets during the appeal, calls the case "a kind of interesting insight into the frustrations of the judicial system."

"Nothing has gone easy," Feldman said. "Whatever could go wrong has gone wrong."

"It's ridiculous," said Neil Levy, a professor at Golden State University School of Law and one of the attorneys representing the Georges in the appellate courts. "You have a girl who is 14 or 15 at the time of the incident, and she may never see a penny before she's 28 or 30."

An Orange County Superior Court jury found in 1983 that members of the Krishna society had falsely imprisoned Robin George, that her father died as a result of his search for her and that Marcia George had suffered severe emotional distress.

Clinical psychologist Margaret Singer, who has been an expert witness in several cult cases, testified in the trial that although Robin was not physically restrained by the Krishnas and did not feel threatened, she was imprisoned by the Krishnas' manipulation of psychological and social influences.

Court-Ordered Reduction

Jurors awarded more than $32.5 million to the plaintiffs, including damages for false imprisonment, emotional distress and wrongful death, as well as punitive damages. The Georges later accepted a court-ordered reduction of the award to $9.7 million.

The case entered its final stages last month when lawyers for the Krishna society, three other related organizations and two individuals filed appellate briefs in the 4th District Court of Appeal in Santa Ana.

The verdict cannot stand, Krishna lawyers argue, because the Orange County jury had to decide whether the society's religious beliefs are genuine before they could judge whether the elements of belief and practice worked to brainwash Robin.

That, they argue, is a violation of the freedom-of-religion clause of the First Amendment.

The Georges' lawyers say certain Krishna rituals were calculated to brainwash Robin and to prevent her from leaving the church, while the Krishnas' lawyers say they are merely part of the religion practiced by members of the society.

Simple Wrongdoing

Attorney Levy maintains the case has nothing to do with the First Amendment. It deals with simple wrongdoing, he says, and is legally no different from a lawsuit for negligence against a Krishna member driving a church-owned car.

For Marcia George, however, the issues are much more complicated than lawyers on either side portray them.

The temporary loss of her daughter, the death of her husband, the financial burden of the case and the uncertainties of the appeal have taken their toll.

"I'm an older person--I don't expect to live that long," George said. "I'm surprised I'm still alive after all that trauma. You live with it. We constantly worry because we realize how the court system works today. There's a chance we might lose everything.

"You just never know which way a judge is going to turn. We thought just getting to trial was a miracle. They told us it would get thrown right out the first day, but it wasn't."

The costs of the investigation before trial "just about broke me," George said. Tracking down potential Krishna defendants was costly. "It took all our savings and everything I got from my husband's insurance. Little by little, it just all disappeared."

Second Mortgage

Midway through the trial, George took out a second mortgage. She refinanced the balloon note three years ago, and it will be 15 years before it is paid off. And she has taken the part-time job.

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