The Wecht case: pronounce it dead

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When a movie flops, we know the numbers. When a trial flops, we're left in the dark.

Anyone can look up how many millions Kevin Costner cost his studio for "Waterworld'' or "The Postman,'' but no federal taxpayer will ever know the tab for the Cyril Wecht mistrial.

We can guess the cost is already millions of dollars, but all we know is that the price can only go up. Federal prosecutors will try the case again, and if they prove nothing else, they will at least prove that even flops can have sequels.

U.S. District Judge Arthur J. Schwab set May 27 for the start of the new trial, and advised the jurors who couldn't come to a decision on any of 41 counts that they shouldn't tell anybody why. Judge Schwab then gave Dr. Wecht's defense team 10 days to file motions to have the charges dismissed.

"We are committed to eliminating the culture of corruption that prevails when officials at the highest levels abuse the public trust,'' U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan said in a prepared statement. "Allegations of wrongdoing by public officials can be both challenging to investigate and to prove.''

Ms. Buchanan has not been up to that challenge. Working in a realm where the government wins more than 95 percent of the time, her prosecutors could not nail the former Allegheny County coroner for civic sins that ranged from sending office minions on hot dog runs to allegedly trading cadavers for lab space.

That's in many ways a replay of Dr. Wecht's successful fight against similar state charges more than 25 years ago, though he eventually paid the county a civil settlement of $200,000.

A poll on post-gazette.com asks readers if they think it is fair for the government to retry Dr. Wecht. More than three-quarters of roughly 2,500 respondents were answering "no'' by yesterday evening. [Click here to see poll.]

There ought to be a second question. Is it wise to devote finite federal resources and the prestige of the U.S. attorney's office to this case?

Ms. Buchanan is a Republican and Dr. Wecht a Democrat. Coincidence, some say. Perhaps it also was coincidence that Ms. Buchanan spent two years investigating former Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy in a failed effort to turn politics into a crime.

Before the 2001 Democratic primary, Mr. Murphy promised city firefighters that all fire stations would remain open through 2005 and there would be no layoffs or reductions in force. His opponent, Bob O'Connor, had also pledged to keep stations open.

After two years of trying to make a federal case out of that, Ms. Buchanan evidently discovered what Mr. Murphy could have told her from the start. Pennsylvania should reform Act 111, the state law that governs collective bargaining between municipalities and public employee unions.

The case against Mr. Murphy was dropped in 2006. Prosecutors saved face with the provision that Mr. Murphy assist any efforts to reform the state law he always said was slanted against taxpayers anyway.

Mr. Murphy maintains the pre-election deal he made with firefighters saved the city money, but even if he's wrong, it's hard to see a well-publicized pre-election promise as a crime.

"I became, for Mary Beth [Buchanan], a scalp to get,'' Mr. Murphy said yesterday. "There was no semblance of 'innocent until proven guilty.'

"I have great sympathy for what Cyril and his family have gone through.''

For Ms. Buchanan, an ambitious prosecutor, "we were seen as marks on her gun,'' he said.

I can't say how I'd vote had I been on the Wecht jury because I did not sit through the trial. But I can wonder, as a citizen, about the zeal for continued prosecution.

Dr. Wecht, 77, was not voted from office in the usual way, but he's out. County voters in May 2005 overwhelmingly approved a referendum that eliminated most county row offices, doing away with the coroner's position and replacing it with an appointed medical examiner. County Chief Executive Dan Onorato appointed Dr. Wecht to the new job, but he resigned upon his indictment in January 2006.

There has been enough testimony to make a case that Dr. Wecht shouldn't be any county employee's boss again. Do we need more?

The U.S. Attorney's Manual says "no prosecution should be initiated against any person unless the government believes that the person probably will be found guilty by an unbiased trier of fact.'' After going 0-for-41 on the charges the first time, a conviction hardly seems probable. Yet federal prosecutors didn't hesitate a moment in pursuing the do-over.

"Wecht Trial II,'' a continuation of the epic that has drained more federal resources than any other case in this young century, opens in May at a courthouse near you.


Brian O'Neill can be reached at boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.


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