Wecht jury deadlocked; judge says to go on

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Defense attorney Jerry McDevitt popped out of the federal courthouse Downtown yesterday afternoon, shortly after jurors told a judge they were hopelessly deadlocked in the case against Dr. Cyril H. Wecht.

"What a beautiful day," Mr. McDevitt said cheerily to the media throng awaiting him.

It might have been Mr. McDevitt's happiest moment in the Wecht case since his client, the former Allegheny County coroner, was indicted in 2006 on fraud and theft charges.

However, the end is not at hand yet. After polling the 11 jurors -- U.S. District Judge Arthur Schwab dismissed one Wednesday for medical reasons -- and hearing all of them say that further deliberations would not help, he sent them back for more anyway.

After 20 minutes, the jury asked to be released until Monday morning. The panel of six women and five men have met for nine days following a seven-week trial.

Although the Wecht defense team feels it might stand at the threshold of victory, at least one jury expert warned against counting on the judge declaring a mistrial because of a hung jury.

"The three-day weekend is a wild card," said jury consultant Arthur H. Patterson with the State College office of DecisionQuest, a litigation consulting firm.

"If they were coming back in the morning, I would suspect no change. But three days is a long time to think about, 'Am I wrong here? Should I change my mind? Do I want to go back there for another week of this?' "

Attorneys showed up in Judge Schwab's courtroom at 1:45 p.m., expecting the judge to give the jury his customary weekend cautions about not discussing the case or checking news reports.

Judge Schwab surprised everyone by announcing that five minutes earlier, the jury had sent the following note:

"After considering all counts in a variety of ways and in reconsideration of all individual opinions according to the court instructions, we have unanimously agree[d] we have reached an impasse and respectfully request direction from the court. We agree additional deliberation would not be helpful."

Mr. McDevitt asked the judge to declare a mistrial if jurors told the judge they were deadlocked. Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen S. Stallings wanted the court to find out if jurors were unanimous on any of the 41 counts, fearing they don't realize it is permissible to reach a verdict on some charges but not others.

Judge Schwab denied both requests.

Instead, he polled the jurors and then instructed them to continue deliberating, saying he realized they were having difficulty but they might work out their differences after more discussion.

"There is no hurry," Judge Schwab told them.

"He sounded mild," Mr. Patterson said. "There are judges who really browbeat jurors into a verdict."

Mr. McDevitt and Judge Schwab sparred for a time about whether the court would tell the jury how long deliberations should continue. Judge Schwab said he would do as he's done all along -- let the jury set its own schedule, which has been 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. with no session on Fridays.

"They shouldn't be allowed to sit in there not knowing what will happen if they can't break the impasse," Mr. McDevitt argued.

Mr. Patterson said jurors can end up feeling as if they must render a verdict.

"The problem is ... unless the judge tells them it's OK to be deadlocked by ending this, the jurors are really captives of the system, and they can come to believe that they're not going to get to go home unless somebody changes their mind. And that is not justice, and that is not a good reason for a juror to change his or her mind," Mr. Patterson said.

Outside the courthouse, Dr. Wecht and his wife, Sigrid, huddled together with their legal team, which includes former governor and U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh. Mrs. Wecht appeared briefly overcome with emotion.

Asked for comment, Dr. Wecht smiled and referred to a symposium at the Cyril H. Wecht Institute of Forensic Science and Law at Duquesne University scheduled to begin in a few hours. Dr. Wecht was to give the opening address.

"We look forward to our CSI conference at Duquesne University," Dr. Wecht said with a smile, "for some real crime."


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


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