Jury selection begins in Wecht trial

Federal case against ex-coroner includes charges of mail fraud, theft of services

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Nearly two years after former Allegheny County Coroner Dr. Cyril H. Wecht was indicted on fraud and other charges, jury selection in the federal case began quietly yesterday, with no fanfare and little noise other than the rustling of paper.

Attorneys for both sides spent several hours flipping through 24-page questionnaires, filled out earlier in the day by 65 potential jurors, in an effort to weed out people who might be biased.

The low-key launch was a stark departure from the clamor and controversy that have often accompanied Dr. Wecht, an outspoken forensic pathologist who carved a reputation over the decades as a scrappy local politician and an internationally renowned coroner to the stars.

Dr. Wecht, 76, is scheduled to go on trial Jan. 28 on 41 counts, including wire and mail fraud and theft of honest services.

Prosecutors contend that Dr. Wecht misused his public office for private gain, improperly availing himself of the staff and resources of the coroner's office to run errands and aid him in his personal life and private pathology business.

Dr. Wecht's principal attorneys, Jerry McDevitt and Mark Rush, maintain their client's innocence.

Jury selection got rolling in early afternoon, as four sets of the questionnaires were wheeled in on a metal cart -- one copy for the judge, one for each side, and the originals for the jury administrator.

After providing brief instructions, U.S. District Judge Arthur J. Schwab bid the attorneys to "enjoy" and set to work himself reviewing the 9-inch stack of questionnaires.

Judge Schwab's courtroom took on the atmosphere of a student exam hall under the watchful eye of a proctor, as lawyers diligently pored over the jury paperwork and took notes. For long stretches the only sound was the shuffling of papers.

Each side was searching for reasons to immediately disqualify people from the jury pool because of either a pre-determined point of view or personal hardship.

Attorneys tried to glean such information by how potential jurors had answered 69 questions.

Most seemed to cut to the heart of the matter, such as queries about political affiliations, connections to law enforcement and opinions about Dr. Wecht. There were also requests to describe any bumper stickers, hobbies, favorite TV shows and movies.

Dr. Wecht, who sat between his counselors yesterday, said little publicly. Asked at the end of the day if he had any comment, Dr. Wecht replied with a smile, "No. There's a lot I'd like to say."

Attorneys are scheduled to reconvene today to discuss the remaining questionnaires in the initial pool, then interview several of the potential jurors.

All told, 400 potential jurors from 16 counties will be whittled down to a group of 40 and then, ultimately, to a panel of 12 jurors and six alternates.

Judge Schwab initially ruled that the jurors would remain anonymous because of what he termed "unprecedented" news media coverage.

Local media outlets, including the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, challenged the ruling, arguing that an anonymous jury was unnecessary and limited the public's ability to ensure the trial was conducted fairly.

Earlier this week, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the media should have access to the jurors' names before they are sworn in.

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


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