Crime lab renamed in Wecht's honor

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Forensic science may be the oldest profession, Cyril Wecht claimed Thursday.

Or, at the least, it is the oldest medical specialty, he said.

Dr. Wecht spoke at the dedication of the Allegheny County morgue and crime lab, which was renamed in his honor. The $29 million complex on Penn Avenue in the Strip District is now called the Cyril H. Wecht Institute of Forensic Science.

Going back to the earliest civilizations, whenever a violent crime or a horrific accident took a life, people understood the need for an expert inquiry into the death, he said.

In recent times, public fascination with the coroners and medical examiners who do autopsies and other investigative work has been fed by television shows, movies and books.

When TV programs deal with real-life crimes anywhere in the world, the expert that producers often turn to is Dr. Wecht, 79, Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato said.

Before resigning in 2006, Dr. Wecht had worked for Allegheny County for a quarter of a century, Mr. Onorato said. During that time, he served as an elected coroner, a county commissioner and an appointed medical examiner. He graduated from both medical school and law school.

The author or co-author of 45 books, he has investigated the deaths of everyone from President John F. Kennedy to reality TV star Anna Nicole Smith.

A past president of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences and the American College of Legal Medicine, he has taught at many colleges and universities -- sometimes in several departments.

Among the speakers at Thursday's dedication was Fred Fochtman, director of the Institute of Forensic Science and Law at Duquesne University.

He said he brought greetings and congratulations from Duquesne's schools of law, pharmacy and health sciences. Dr. Wecht had served as adjunct faculty at all of them.

He also had an active life as a politician, serving as Allegheny County's Democratic Party chairman. He was an unsuccessful candidate for the U.S. Senate and for Allegheny County executive.

Jim Roddey, the man who defeated him for that post, said he began that election battle believing Dr. Wecht to be "the devil incarnate."

After the two debated 13 times during a hard-fought campaign, he discovered that his opponent was a man "who cared deeply about family, community and his profession."

Few politicians, and probably no other medical examiner, have led as varied a life and been involved in as many controversies.

He has twice been charged with criminal offenses but was never convicted of claims by prosecutors that he used public resources for private gain.

In 1981 he successfully fought criminal counts alleging that he used morgue employees to process microscopic slides and tissue examinations for his private business. Dr. Wecht's defense was that the private specimens had been studied at the public morgue as part of a teaching program.

He was indicted in January 2006 on 84 federal counts alleging that he had misused county resources to benefit his pathology business.

The number of charges was whittled down to 14, but his trial ended with a hung jury. Then-U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan ultimately asked that the charges be dismissed.

Correction/Clarification: (Published October 16, 2010) Allegheny County Council President Rich Fitzgerald was misidentified in a photo caption from the dedication of the Cyril H. Wecht Institute of Forensic Science that appeared Oct. 15. He was second from left in a picture that included Dr. Wecht, former county Executive Jim Roddey and current county Executive Dan Onorato.

Len Barcousky: or 724-772-0184.


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