Dr. Wecht's silent treatment

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Cyril Wecht, a man accustomed to speaking for effect, pleaded "not guilty" last week in a case that combined jurisprudence with deja vu and marked a turning point in local history: He left the courthouse to avoid the TV crews.

Voluble, brilliant -- some say arrogant, while others say entitled to be so -- Dr. Wecht has been a fixture on the city's celebrity landscape, a genuine character in a town steadily trending vanilla. His lawyers (at last count there were five) have shortened his leash just outside of camera range.

Proceedings in the courtroom of U.S. Magistrate Francis X. Caiazza were redolent of a bad divorce. Dr. Wecht stared straight ahead. Prosecutor Steve Stallings spoke toward the side of the man's head.

"The purpose of your arraignment is threefold," Mr. Stallings said. He then described each fold, none of them especially interesting.

"Do you understand that?" he asked.

"Yes," Dr. Wecht said, still staring straight ahead as if Mr. Stallings were a termigant spouse or, perhaps, a roadside heckler.

Judge Caiazza asked prosecutors how long they expected their case to take.

Mr. Stallings figured his side would need five to six weeks to lay out the particulars. Judge Caiazza turned to Wecht's lead counsel, Jerry Johnson.

"At least a month, your honor," Mr. Johnson said.

Spectators who up to then had been looking at their watches started running over their calendars. With 84 counts lodged against the former coroner, that comes down to more than 21 hours of litigation per count. You have to wonder sometimes if it wouldn't be better to try these things in the media.

If Dr. Wecht exuded the insouciance ordinarily reserved for prosecutors in these sorts of hearings, it is well to remember that a quarter-century ago he swatted back an assortment of charges largely identical to the ones now pending against him. County prosecutors once accused the coroner of carelessly mixing expenses from his official job and his private pathology practice. He was acquitted.

On Friday, Dr. Wecht's lawyers dispensed with the reading of the charges, which meant everyone would leave before lunch. Dr. Wecht was asked how he pleaded and he responded in italics and the remaining quibble centered on whether he should be held on an unsecured $100,000 bond or released on his own recognizance. Judge Caiazza decided on the former, and everybody filed out of the room except for Dr. Wecht, two of his lawyers and the judge's clerk.

"You've been released on $100,000 unsecured bond," the clerk told him. "You don't have to give us $100,000." Freed of a need to reach for his wallet, Dr. Wecht, instead, pulled out an argument about why he should be able to leave town on business. Jerry Johnson, the former U.S. attorney now defending Dr. Wecht, accomplished something heretofore unwitnessed: He quietened one of the most familiar voices in all Pittsburgh.

Well, he tried.

"This is not the place to argue. Now, I've told you. Now wait for me outside," Mr. Johnson said. Running a hand across a silver head that resembles the mane of a lion, Mr. Johnson strode from the room.

"I have to go to Texas on business Monday," Dr. Wecht said.

The clerk turned to Cynthia Eddy, the last lawyer in the room. "He needs to file a motion," the clerk told her.

Dr. Wecht and Ms. Eddy slipped out to an elevator and visited the second floor. This had to be hard. Dr. Wecht, for whom the Green Room at CNN is a more familiar venue, was taken behind a bolted, steel door at the U.S. Marshals Service where, in keeping with custom, he was fingerprinted, photographed, his biographical details were recorded and he was not asked for his views on JonBenet Ramsey.

A moment later, a young man was frog-trotted through the same door in handcuffs. It could have been worse, I suppose.

After 15 minutes, Dr. Wecht emerged and walked down the hall toward a door marked "Pre-Trial Conference." His mind was still on the airport. "Well, there are going to be several: Seattle, Los Angeles ... ." Ms. Eddy nodded. They entered the next door.

Downstairs, camera crews huddled in a corner of the courthouse's undersized lobby, waiting for a man who usually can't be avoided for comment.

After 45 minutes, another reporter and I went back upstairs to pre-trial to ask when the man who last week spent an hour on "Larry King Live" would be walking past the hounds of the press.

Gone, they said.

I walked down the far end of the hall and noticed a door marked "Emergency Exit." Cyril Wecht had gone silent.

It's going to take some getting used to.

Dennis Roddy is a Post-Gazette columnist, droddy@post-gazette.com , 412-263-1965.


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