Long Wecht trial heads to jury

Question comes down to honest mistakes or fraud

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Whether jurors view Dr. Cyril H. Wecht as a brilliant crusader who made honest mistakes while toiling for the greater good or a corrupt schemer who shamelessly took advantage of his public office could come down to a final blaze of lawyerly oratory tomorrow.

After enduring 22 days of testimony in the fraud trial of Allegheny County's former coroner, the jury will have to sift through a mountain of evidence to determine whether Dr. Wecht is guilty of breaking federal law.

But before they're sent to contemplate a verdict, the jurors' final impressions of Dr. Wecht will be framed by two hours of closing arguments by each side -- the ultimate opportunity for attorneys to spin the evidence their way.

"Given that's the last thing they hear, it couldn't be more important," said University

of Pittsburgh law professor David A. Harris. "It's like when you spill a jigsaw puzzle out on a table. The closing gives the lawyers a chance to bring it all together and to show the jury how it fits."

All the while, the man whose fate hangs in the balance, whose remarkable and relentless career has spanned decades and continents, can do the only thing he's done every day for the past seven weeks: Sit back in a Downtown courtroom and listen.

During the trial, the 76-year-old Dr. Wecht has quietly watched prosecutors parade former employees, private clients, his corporate accountant and even his two trusted one-time secretaries before the jury.

More than one witness hauled in to testify on behalf of the government, including Sister Grace Ann Geibel, the former president of Carlow, clearly supported Dr. Wecht. Some witnesses who testified to alleged wrongdoing -- such as deputy coroners describing personal errands they were told to run -- even conceded they liked the forensic pathologist and learned from him.

In contrast to his public persona, which brims with opinions and an English major's vocabulary, Dr. Wecht's demeanor in the courtroom has been quiet and reserved. He occasionally chatted with spectators during breaks or joked with reporters, but by and large, his defining characteristic in court has been silence.

In this case, Cyril Wecht, M.D., J.D. an accomplished expert witness paid to talk to juries, had to let others do the talking for him. Tomorrow will be a day for talking like no other, presumably by lead defense attorney Jerry McDevitt.

"It's often where a juror will have the 'a-ha moment,' " Drexel University law professor Brian J. Foley said of the closing argument.

Both sides are expected to circle back to their opening statements in hammering their points home to jurors one last time and packaging the information in a coherent way to support their theory of the case.

"There's no better person than McDevitt," Pittsburgh defense attorney Mark A. Sindler said. "He's a very accomplished trial lawyer. You have to have a theme throughout the trial. The theme obviously comes to the jury in the opening statement. You hopefully can carry that theme throughout the case. If you're true to your promise ... now it has to be brought full circle in your closing arguments."

While Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen S. Stallings told jurors that the case against Dr. Wecht is "simple" and boils down to him using county resources for private gain, Mr. McDevitt wrote the case off to "routine billing errors" for "petty amounts" by a man so busy helping put murderers in jail that he merely asked for a hand from his staff to accomplish all his myriad tasks.

Mr. Stallings and his colleague, Assistant U.S. Attorney James R. Wilson, employed a document-heavy strategy, displaying hundreds of pages of invoices, calendar entries, telephone logs, policies and correspondence.

A mountain of paper

Unlike trials involving violent crime, white-collar cases have a different focus, noted Robert Ridge, a Pittsburgh defense lawyer and former U.S. Justice Department trial attorney.

"The question in a street-crime case is always, who did it," Mr. Ridge said. "In a white-collar case, rarely is there a question of who did it because there's so much paper in the case. The question in a white-collar case is, is this a crime?"

Another question is pertinent. Could the onslaught of documentary evidence over the course of seven weeks harm the prosecution?

"The slower a case comes in there's always more confusion. The more paper you put out, the more you create a fertile field for confusion, and confusion usually works for the benefit of the defense. But who knows?" said Butler attorney Alexander H. Lindsay Jr., a former federal prosecutor. Juries, he added, are "totally unpredictable."

Dr. Wecht and his team made a tactical decision to not call any witnesses, gambling that the strength of their cross-examinations of the prosecution's 44 witnesses and a proclaimed weakness in the government's case would be enough to sway jurors to a not-guilty verdict.

For each of the allegations, the defense had an answer, leaving jurors the task of wrestling with how to interpret the evidence.

It is clear, for instance, that Dr. Wecht knew his secretary was billing private clients for limousine rides he never took. She explained it away on the witness stand by saying he told her the $80 to $90 charges covered incidentals.

Dr. Wecht definitely struck a deal with Carlow to provide cadavers for a student autopsy program, and he did indeed receive free lab space. But Sister Geibel, who created the program, said no discussion ever took place about unclaimed bodies from the county morgue or no quid pro quo was involved.

Dr. Wecht routinely approved billing private clients for airfare that was more than he paid. But his secretaries said they routinely pre-billed clients, never reconciled the bills with Dr. Wecht's credit card statements and sometimes undercharged.

"The defense is going to try to put the government's effort on trial. They're going to say that this guy is out there trying to do the public good ... every day, and he's one of the great things about Pittsburgh. What could they assemble against him except a bunch of little things?" Mr. Harris said.

"And then they will try to pick each one apart, to atomize the case and show it's nothing but a bunch of little, picky technicalities and inconsequential errors that anybody could make, especially a very busy person like Dr. Wecht."

Indeed, that's the theory Mr. McDevitt put forth in his opening statement.

Humanizing the coroner

The defense team worked hard to tell jurors how brilliant Dr. Wecht is, how important his talents are as an expert witness to help lock up criminals, how he does volunteer work, how he took time to dictate letters to students. Mr. McDevitt's partner, Mark Rush, even referred to Dr. Wecht at times as "this brain."

Mr. McDevitt and Mr. Rush tried to humanize Dr. Wecht, joking with witnesses about his sweet tooth and how anytime he was in a car with someone, he would drive. On the first day of trial, Mr. McDevitt described Dr. Wecht's "relentless work ethic" and claimed he is "the best bargain Allegheny County ever had."

A key point that will be up to jurors to decide is perhaps the most important: whether Dr. Wecht, whatever he did, meant to defraud anyone. One side says yes, the other no.

"The defendant deceitfully defrauded people in order to put money in his pocket at other people's expense," Mr. Stallings told jurors in his opening statement.

"He is innocent of having criminal intent of any of the acts [Mr. Stallings] just told you," Mr. McDevitt said.

U.S. District Judge Arthur J. Schwab will tell the jury that if they believe Dr. Wecht acted in good faith, it is a "complete defense," at least on the counts of wire and mail fraud encompassing theft of honest services.

What the attorneys say during their closing arguments will no doubt influence deliberations about Dr. Wecht's intentions.

"You must give your jurors the ammunition to use in the jury room," Mr. Lindsay said. "You must anticipate there are jurors who are against you, who are going to argue the position of the other side, and you must therefore give your jurors what to say when this issue comes up."


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


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