Defense says Wecht had jurisdiction over unclaimed bodies

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Defense attorney Jerry McDevitt this morning used prosecutors' own exhibits to show that most of the bodies shipped to Carlow University from the Allegheny County morgue were unclaimed cadavers over which Dr. Cyril H. Wecht had jurisdiction under state law to send to educational institutions.

For the first part of the 19th day of Dr. Wecht's trial on federal fraud charges, Mr. McDevitt focused on the government's allegation that he traded cadavers to Carlow for its autopsy technician program in exchange for free lab space for his private autopsy practice.

The trial recessed yesterday because of a sick juror. She returned today.

Four cadavers that went to Carlow that did not appear to be unclaimed were shipped in November 2005. Mr. McDevitt noted that three of them were signed off on by the same deputy coroner, John J. Smith.

Former Chief Deputy Coroner Joseph Dominick told jurors Monday that around November 2005, FBI agent Bradley Orsini, the lead investigator in the Wecht case, was spending time regularly at the coroner's office around that time. Mr. McDevitt was clearly intimating a link between problems suddenly cropping up with cadavers that were not unclaimed going to Carlow and the presence of Mr. Orsini, but he has not established a clear theory for the jury.

Mr. Dominick testified that Carlow students in the autopsy technician program taught by Dr. Wecht benefited greatly, particularly by being able to watch autopsies on homicide victims from other counties with whom Dr. Wecht privately contracted. He also said there could be benefits even for autopsies conducted on the unclaimed cadavers of elderly people who died of natural causes, such as a medical error.

"There is a chance that somebody might find something different, right?" Mr. McDevitt asked.

"That is correct," Mr. Dominick answered.

Mr. McDevitt has been waging a behind-the-scenes battle with the government about the body-trading allegation, arguing that prosecutors have not presented any evidence showing such a deal, much less one in which bodies began shipping to Carlow from the morgue in 2003. Their efforts in court, he has argued, seek to improperly update the indictment against Dr. Wecht.

"The indictment alleges a straight quid-pro-quo agreement entered into and performed beginning in or around June 2003..." according to a defense filing. "The government knows full well, and has for some time, that not a single unclaimed cadaver, or any cadaver, was sent to Carlow in 2003 at all."

Indeed, documents shown to jurors clearly show no bodies being shipped before September 2004. Prosecutors have responded that the language of the indictment gives a time span from June 2003 to around December 2005 for bodies to be shipped.

In its motion, the government responded that it never alleged bodies began to ship to Carlow in June 2003, but rather that was when the arrangement with Carlow was struck.

The judge ruled that Dr. Wecht's motion and analysis contained "dubious and one-sided inferences and characterizations of evidence..."

On Monday, Mr. Dominick told Assistant U.S. Attorney James Wilson that Dr. Wecht informed him bodies were going to Carlow before the program was announced in September 2003. Under cross-examiniation, however, he backed off that statement. Today, Mr. McDevitt showed there was no record of Mr. Dominick making such a statement during his testimony before a grand jury on Jan. 6, 2006, only two weeks before the federal government indicted Dr. Wecht. There was also no written record of Mr. Dominick making such a statement to the FBI.

Mr. McDevitt spent part of his cross-examination on an immunity deal struck with Mr. Dominick.

The government initially gave Mr. Dominick a limited grant of immunity, interviewed him, and then informed Mr. Dominick he was a target for possible prosecution.

In January 2006, Mr. Dominick received full immunity -- a move he told Mr. McDevitt was necessary for his protection even though he felt he broke no laws, and one that he felt stigmatized him and did not reflect he broke any laws.

In September 2005 an article was published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about Mr. Dominick becoming a target in the investigation. Mr. McDevitt indicated he thought the government leaked the information.

"To this day, do you know why the government did this to you?" Mr. McDevitt asked, immediately drawing an objection from Assistant U.S. Attorney James Wilson that was sustained.

Mr. McDevitt won one victory when quizzing Mr. Dominick about "Wecht details," the personal errands numerous deputy coroners have testified they had to run. While asking Mr. Dominick about deputy coroners going to Duquesne University, home to the Cyril H. Wecht Institute of Forensic Science and Law, Mr. Wilson said, "We'll stipulate that the trips to Duquesne were not Wecht details."

Mr. McDevitt asked if that would "dramatically decrease" the number of Wecht details, and Mr. Dominick said that it would.

Mr. Dominick also testified about a largely favorable 2004 performance audit of the coroner's office by the county controller in which auditors were given free range. Mr. Dominick said no problems were uncovered at that time with any aspect of the coroner's office related to the histology department of deputy coroners running errands for Dr. Wecht -- two key portions of the government's indictment.

The trial resumes after the lunch break with Mr. Dominick still under cross-examination.


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