Wecht, Zappala aren't seeing eye-to-eye

District attorney, coroner in turf battle

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Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. and Coroner Dr. Cyril H. Wecht have known each other for more than 30 years and consider themselves personal friends.

But professionally there is a growing split between the two Democrats over the jurisdiction of their offices and the future of the coroner's office.

The differences have shown up in several cases over the past few months, including one in which Zappala blocked Wecht from holding an inquest into the death of a care home patient.

"I've known Doc since I was a little child," Zappala said yesterday. "I like Doc as a person. I respect him as a professional."

"We've been friends. We don't socialize, but we've been friends," Wecht said of the district attorney.

This week, two of Zappala's prosecutors, James Gilmore and Kevin McCarthy, successfully went to court to block the coroner's office from holding an open inquest into the Aug. 28 death of an elderly woman who lived at a personal care home in Indiana Township.

Anna Mae Edwards, 91, died three days after she was found on the floor of her room at Cedarwoods Personal Care Inc. on Saxonburg Boulevard.

After an investigation, the district attorney's office filed two misdemeanor counts of neglect of a care-dependent person against Judith Reynolds, 64, operator of the care home. She was held for trial after a prelimiinary hearing.

From a prosecutor's standpoint, the ideal conclusion would be a conviction. The coroner has a different agenda.

An open inquest is required, Wecht said, because it has not been determined whether the death was accidental, natural or homicide.

"I recognize that his approach is different from ours philosophically, politically and judicially," Wecht said. "We have to put down on that death certificate our findings, our rulings and our determinations. We cannot do that without power of subpoenas and inquests."

The coroner's office wants to subpoena and question, under oath, many of the same investigators and witnesses already involved in the district attorney's criminal case.

That, said Zappala, could jeopardize the case against Reynolds, and improperly provide the coroner access to police investigative files.

The coroner's office has appealed to Commonwealth Court to affirm its authority to conduct this and other open inquests. It is a responsibility that Wecht said coroners have held for eight centuries.

"It's most likely, almost definitely, going to wind up before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court," Wecht said.

"I can't emphasize enough that I love Doc," Zappala said. "But I'll do what I have to do to protect the process."

Other situations since September 2003 show the philosophical split between the two offices. That's when Zappala decided to change the procedure for open inquests, an investigative process the coroner's office uses in cases when it hasn't determined what led to a death.

Previously, one of Zappala's prosecutors would question witnesses at the inquests. But the district attorney pulled his prosecutors from participation.

Wecht called the decision "awkward," and he said he holds no grudge against the DA's office for pulling out.

The change occurred at a time when the public clamored for responses by Zappala to Wecht's recommendations that charges be filed against police officers in fatal shooting incidents.

Wecht, after an open inquest led by a representative from the district attorney's office last year, criticized police for overreacting to an altercation at a Mount Oliver party that led to the death two years ago of 43-year-old Charles A. Dixon. Wecht recommended that Zappala pursue homicide charges in the case.

No charges have been filed, though Dixon's family settled a civil lawsuit against the borough for $850,000.

The coroner also recommended homicide charges against three Pittsburgh Housing Authority police officers in connection with the shooting death of Bernard Rogers, who was killed in a confrontation with the officers in a Hill District apartment building in 2002.

After much delay, with Rogers' relatives and friends urging Zappala to follow up on the recommendation, further hearings were held by the coroner.

Last month, Wecht backed away from the original recommendation, citing new evidence that indicated Rogers was shot while wrestling for the weapon of one of the officers and had marijuana in his system.

Zappala formally announced yesterday he wouldn't pursue charges.

In the care home case, Wecht said, it is important to determine whether the home provided proper care. In similar cases involving institutional deaths, Wecht has offered advice including procedural changes or added training to help prevent future deaths.

Looming in the background of the philosophical differences between the coroner and the district attorney is a pending effort to reduce the county's elected row offices.

County Chief Executive Dan Onorato expects to submit a plan to County Council after next month's election to cut the number of elected row offices from 10 to 2, retaining the district attorney and the controller. Most row officers would have their jobs changed to administrative rather than elected posts. The coroner would become an appointed medical examiner.

Onorato wants to have a referendum question on the ballot in May to reduce row offices.

"The checks and balances in investigations are the sciences," Zappala said, referring to the pathologists, forensics and ballistics experts and criminologists now employed by the coroner. He stopped short of saying there is no need for an elected coroner, or that he favors establishment of a medical examiner who is appointed rather than elected.

"I think there are things we can definitely do to improve the system," Zappala said.

Wecht said believes there is little chance his office will be toppled in favor of an appointed medical examiner.

Jim McKinnon can be reached at jmckinnon@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1939.


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