Wecht trial continues; Vegas tape introduced

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For the first time during his two week trial, the jury got to hear from the defendant himself.

Former Allegheny County Coroner Dr. Cyril H. Wecht didn't take the stand, but his defense attorneys played a videotaped portion of a Las Vegas show he and two other nationally known forensic scientists put on nearly four years ago.

In "The Three Sleuths," performed April 17, 2004, at the Rio Hotel, Dr. Wecht lectured in his typical high-energy style on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and his notion that the "Single Bullet Theory" is fiction.

In a performance that allowed him to embrace his quick wit and unbridled intellectualism, Dr. Wecht traced through President Kennedy's assassination and spoke about his belief that the autopsy was botched from the very beginning by the selection of two pathologists at Bethesda Naval Hospital who had never done a gunshot wound autopsy.

The defense played about 30 minutes of the two-hour tape, highlighting Dr. Wecht's role in the show during the testimony of one of the former coroner's administrative assistants. Kathleen McCabe said she had spent a great deal of her county work time during the year before the debut of "The Three Sleuths" on correspondence between Dr. Wecht and the show's producer.

Some of his greatest recognition as a forensic pathologist came from his dispute with U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter over the Warren Commission's report in which it identified Lee Harvey Oswald as the single shooter of President Kennedy.

The 12 jurors and six alternates hearing the case stared intently at the small video screens in front of them, laughing in all the same parts as the Las Vegas audience did.

But once Dr. Wecht's portion of the tape ended, the government showed the jury another segment. In that one, forensic pathologist Michael Baden spoke about the monetary value of dead bodies dating to the 19th century. He recounted the story of two men in Scotland who went around killing women to sell their cadavers for the study of anatomy.

"Bodies were found to be valuable," Dr. Baden said. "The difference is that they're more valuable today. Bodies and body parts can be sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars for a single body.

"We all are worth more dead than alive, unfortunately, the way medical science works now."

The point prosecutors were trying to make seemed clear: They have accused Dr. Wecht of taking unclaimed bodies from the coroner's office and trading them for educational purposes at Carlow University in exchange for lab space for his private business.

Ms. McCabe spent most of the day on the witness stand, including more than an hour on cross-examination going over dozens of letters she had typed for Dr. Wecht. In many of them, he provided career guidance to high school students, offered congratulations to local luminaries and gave assistance to people claiming to be wrongfully convicted.

"Every letter, he answered," she said.

"He's not making any money off these letters, is he?" asked defense attorney Jerry McDevitt.

"No," Ms. McCabe replied.

Also yesterday, two attorneys told the jury they were unaware that expenses charged to them by Dr. Wecht for his testimony in two separate wrongful death actions were under scrutiny until they were contacted by the FBI.

One lawyer, Eric Buikema, of Detroit, said he was "extremely" satisfied with Dr. Wecht's testimony and that his expenses were "negligible," compared to the fees that he charged for his testimony.

"Would you hire Dr. Wecht again?" asked defense attorney Mark Rush.

"I would," Mr. Buikema answered, explaining that Dr. Wecht's testimony helped his client defeat a $20 million action against him.

Myron Shapiro, a Miami lawyer, told the jury that he had hired Dr. Wecht to testify at a rate of $5,000 per day. He also paid him $1,218 for round-trip airfare from Pittsburgh to Orlando, Fla.

"I reviewed the invoice, and it seemed to be reasonable in every respect," Mr. Shapiro said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney James R. Wilson then showed the lawyer Dr. Wecht's credit card statement, which showed he had paid $659 for the plane ticket.

Among other charges, the government has accused Dr. Wecht of falsely inflating his travel expenses for his private clients.

After a day off, the trial will resume at 8:30 a.m. Monday before U.S. District Judge Arthur J. Schwab.


Paula Reed Ward can be reached at pward@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2620.


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