Judge's ruling may limit power of coroner on open inquests

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For years, Allegheny County Coroner Dr. Cyril H. Wecht has fiercely proclaimed his office's independence and supreme authority to hold open inquests into suspicious deaths.

Yesterday, however, a judge tempered the coroner's powers in a decision that forces the coroner to "consult and advise" with the district attorney on open inquests.

The 22-page opinion by Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning seeks to effect a truce between Wecht and District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr., who have been battling for months over the powers and jurisdiction of the coroner.

In doing so, Manning seemed to agree with Zappala's office that coroner's inquests could potentially harm criminal investigations and that open inquests should abide by the same rules as court trials to protect defendants' rights.

Manning held that the coroner must consult with the district attorney before scheduling an open inquest or commenting on the results of a death investigation.

The judge further said the district attorney's office can challenge in court the ability of the coroner to hold an open inquest or disseminate information from an inquest.

Manning attached to his opinion a proposed five-page consent order -- essentially a list of guidelines that the coroner and district attorney would agree to. Both parties would have to sign for it to take effect.

Manning would not comment on his ruling yesterday, and it was unclear what would happen if the agreement were not signed.

Manning, reiterating statements made in open court over the past several months, wrote that it was paramount that the two sides come to a working relationship.

"It is vitally important that the district attorney's office and the coroner's office not work at cross purposes," he wrote. "The only way to avoid this is for there to be regular sharing of information and consultation between these officers and their employees charged with carrying out their duties."

Manning later wrote: "Whatever the reason for the breakdown in communication that has caused this matter to be brought before the court, those lines of communication must be reopened, and the coroner must consult with and be advised by [the] district attorney in all of these matters."

In a three-paragraph statement, Zappala's office called Manning's opinion "well-written" and said it "imposes substantial procedural and ethical guidelines upon the coroner and his employees."

Wecht declined comment yesterday, saying he had "skimmed" through the opinion and would review it more thoroughly today with counsel.

Manning referred to coroner's open inquests -- proceedings in which a hearing examiner listens to testimony from witnesses about a suspicious death, shares findings with the coroner, and the coroner recommends to the DA whether to file charges -- as a "virtual anachronism," considering latter-day advances in forensic science.

"An open, public inquest into a death is of little utility in light of these scientific advances," Manning wrote. "It is certainly a tool that can be used in limited circumstances to compel the production of evidence that may otherwise not be available, but must be used in cooperation with any ongoing criminal investigation by the District Attorney's Office or other law enforcement agencies."

The dispute between two of the county's most powerful Democrats reached the courts in early January, when Zappala tried to block Wecht from holding open inquests into the deaths of two people, one killed by police and the other by a fugitive recovery agent.

The DA's office filed four motions seeking to block coroner's subpoenas and compel the coroner's office to turn over information and evidence in the shooting deaths of Michael Robinson on the North Side in December and Eugene Aiello in Wilkins in November.

Allegheny County Coroner Cyril Wecht

Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr.

Previous coverage
Wecht paper sparked feud with Zappala (2/15/05)

Feud pits 2 powerful Dems against each other (2/13/05)
Zappala probing payment to Wecht (2/12/05)
DA, coroner wrangle again over open inquests (1/6/05)

Jonathan D. Silver can be reached at jsilver@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1962.


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