Wecht trial: Feds keep focus on unclaimed cadavers

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Dr. Cyril H. Wecht's federal fraud trial has concluded for the day with his former top aide, Joseph Dominick, testifying about 16 bodies that the government claims were improperly sent to Carlow University for autopsies as part of an agreement the former Allegheny County coroner had with the school.

Federal prosecutors contend that Dr. Wecht sent unclaimed bodies from the county morgue to Carlow for student autopsies in return for free lab space to conduct autopsies for his private practice, Cyril H. Wecht and Pathology Associates. The bodies were later returned to the coroner's office and then sent for cremation.

That allegation is part of the government's general claim that Dr. Wecht illegally used county resources to benefit his private practice. Dr. Wecht is charged with 41 offenses, including mail fraud, wire fraud and theft from an organization receiving federal funds.

Of the 16 cases, documents shown to jurors clearly indicated that 11 bodies were diverted to Carlow, while paperwork noted that four were autopsied. In only one case was the box on the death certificate indicating an autopsy marked "yes."

Under cross-examination, Mr. Dominick told defense attorney Jerry McDevitt that Dr. Wecht never told him to shirk his duty when it came to the unclaimed bodies being sent to Carlow. Mr. Dominick said he was never instructed not to follow procedures for finding the deceased's family members or told to order deputy coroners not to exercise due diligence.

Mr. Dominick is expected to continue on the witness stand tomorrow under cross-examination.

The prosecution's first witness this morning was Dr. Bruce Hirsch, executive secretary of the state's Human Gifts Registry. The registry operates under the jurisdiction of the state Health Department and coordinates the donation of bodies to teaching and research institutions.

Bodies apparently never went from the county morgue to Carlow under the registry's auspices. The only paperwork on record between Dr. Wecht, Carlow and the registry dated from March 2006 -- after Dr. Wecht left public office. The registry approved the application for bodies to be sent to Carlow for teaching purposes in a class that had Dr. Wecht as an instructor, but Dr. Hirsch testified that no bodies were ever dispatched under the agreement.

Defense attorney Mark Rush asked Dr. Hirsch if state law gave a county coroner jurisdiction over cadavers that superseded the registry.

"I don't know when, but in some cases, yes," Dr. Hirsch answered.

The defense has made clear that their interpretation of state law allows coroners to dispose of unclaimed bodies as they see fit without incurring any legal liability.

More details in tomorrow's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.


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