Wecht's lawyers want all evidence thrown out

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Lawyers for Dr. Cyril H. Wecht yesterday asked a federal judge to throw out all of the evidence the government used in its 84-count indictment of the famed forensic pathologist, saying the federal investigation was motivated by a political rival and conducted by a dishonest FBI agent.

In a 26-page suppression motion filled with vitriol, attorney Jerry S. McDevitt asked that U.S. District Judge Arthur J. Schwab declare three FBI search warrants to be illegal.

Defense motions challenging search warrants are routine in federal prosecutions.

But in this case, Mr. McDevitt and another Wecht lawyer, Mark Rush, included scathing attacks against both FBI Agent Bradley Orsini and Dr. Wecht's longtime nemesis, District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr.

The motion claims affidavits for search warrants signed by Agent Orsini to seize computers and 29 boxes of Dr. Wecht's private records are "infected with his deliberate and reckless falsehoods."

The lawyers also claim that Agent Orsini has a "known bad reputation within the FBI, including having urged witnesses to perjure themselves in a case involving his own misconduct" when he worked in the Newark, N.J., field office.

The motion does not detail Agent Orsini's alleged "improprieties" in Newark, but it says the FBI's internal affairs unit, the Office of Professional Responsibility, was aware of his problems before he was transferred to Pittsburgh in February 2005.

Mr. McDevitt said in his motion that he can produce a witness who will say that Agent Orsini asked the witness to lie during an internal investigation.

Agent Orsini and the FBI refused comment yesterday. Records of the FBI's Office of Professional Responsibility are not open to the public.

The lawyers also leveled numerous accusations against Mr. Zappala, saying he prompted the federal investigation because of a political feud with Dr. Wecht over cases in which people have died at the hands of police.

Dr. Wecht has often recommended that police be prosecuted in such cases while Mr. Zappala has chosen not to prosecute. That dispute, the lawyers say, is at the root of the investigation.

The acrimony, according to the filing, reached a boiling point after the death of Charles Dixon in a fight with police in December 2002 at the Mount Oliver Fire Hall.

Dr. Wecht ruled the death was caused by positional asphyxiation and urged Mr. Zappala to file homicide charges. Mr. Zappala said he didn't think there was enough evidence.

In 2003, a lawyer for Dixon's estate paid Dr. Wecht $5,000 for an expert opinion in a federal suit, which was eventually settled for $850,000.

According to the motion, when Mr. Zappala learned of Dr. Wecht's private work for the Dixon family, he "vowed to have federal authorities" examine Dr. Wecht's activities.

"The pretextual referral done for a clearly improper purpose was designed to, and did, stop an important public debate caused by Zappala's failure to prosecute select police officers in the face of Dr. Wecht's opinion that the citizen deaths at their hands were homicides," Mr. McDevitt wrote.

"And it worked. As a result of the indictment, Dr. Wecht was obliged to resign as medical examiner -- accomplishing the goal of Zappala."

"The federal government has indicted Cyril Wecht on multiple charges," Mr. Zappala responded. "It is appropriate that the United States attorney respond to the motion in court. I will not dignify his personal attacks with a response at this time."

The motion also said Mr. Zappala, while accusing Dr. Wecht of abusing his office, has himself been misusing his own office by "quietly entering into a no-bid lucrative renewal contract with the law firm he left in 1998" to provide solicitors' service for the district attorney' office.

According to vouchers produced yesterday by the county controller's office, Brucker, Schneider & Porter, Mr. Zappala's former law firm, was paid $292,492 in no-bid contracts between 1999 and this year.

The county administrative code allows no-bid contracts for professional services.

In a statement, U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan said in response to the defense filing, "We dispute the allegations contained in the defendant's motion to suppress. We will answer those allegations in our written response to the court."

Judge Schwab gave the government until May 25 to respond.

Dr. Wecht, 75, was indicted in January on charges of mixing personal and county expenses, bilking private clients and trading unclaimed bodies for office space at a local university. He later resigned.

Federal prosecutors and the defense have since indicated more charges are coming.

What they might be no one will reveal, but Dr. Wecht's lawyers said in court that at least 68 witnesses have been called to testify in the ongoing case. They raised the issue in yet another complaint to the judge about the government's conduct, saying the subpoenas are improper because witnesses are asked not to reveal that they had been subpoenaed.

"That is a false statement," Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Stallings told the judge.

Beyond the various allegations against Mr. Zappala and Agent Orsini, the motion focuses on Mr. McDevitt's challenge of the search warrants, which he said amount to a "fishing expedition."

Dr. Wecht's lawyers contend the warrants were too broad in that they allowed the FBI to seize records that had nothing to do with the investigation.

Among the files improperly seized, the lawyers said, were those related to the deaths of notable figures such as Marilyn Monroe, James Earl Ray and Kurt Cobain.

The lawyers also challenged Agent Orsini's requests to seize laptop computers used by Dr. Wecht's secretaries by saying the agent "spun an incredible yarn" of probable cause.

In one case, for example, Agent Orsini asked to seize the laptop of secretary Eileen Young, writing that she did "private work for the financial benefit of Wecht to the exclusion of work on behalf" of the coroner's office.

A suppression hearing to air all of the issues is set for June 8.

Torsten Ove can be reached at tove@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2620.


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