Wecht charges dropped

Forensic pathologist calls Buchanan 'a sore loser'

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U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan still believes that former Allegheny County Coroner Dr. Cyril H. Wecht committed crimes.

Dr. Wecht believes that Ms. Buchanan is a sore loser.

And yesterday, even as she dismissed the case against him allowing him to finally move on with his life, the two sides continued to snipe at each other in victory and defeat.

At a news conference yesterday morning, Ms. Buchanan announced that she filed a motion to dismiss the charges against the prominent forensic pathologist following a May 14 court order suppressing much of the evidence in the case.

"This severely impacted our ability to present our case at any future trial, and to sustain our burden of proof," she said.

But later she continued, "He wasn't acquitted of anything. It was a hung jury.

"However, in our society, everyone is innocent until proven guilty."

Dr. Wecht, at a news conference yesterday afternoon following the judge's signing of the order to dismiss the case, called Ms. Buchanan a "sore loser."

"Her record, her actions speak for themselves," he said. "She has no shame at all. Absolutely none. Evidently, whether it's biological, or genetic or an environmental, infectious contaminant of some kind, she is incapable of simply telling the truth, not to mention being a gracious loser."

Dr. Wecht criticized the government for filing an 84-count indictment and whittling it down to just 14 counts before dismissing the entire case.

"What does that say about professional decency and ethical responsibility?" he asked.

The formal case against Dr. Wecht began in January 2006, when he was indicted by a federal grand jury on 84 counts, including mail and wire fraud and theft from an organization receiving federal funds.

The prosecution contended that Dr. Wecht, who has worked on dozens of celebrity death investigations, was misusing Allegheny County resources for the benefit of his private pathology business.

It was the second time in his public career he faced such accusations. He was tried by Allegheny County on similar charges in 1981 and acquitted.

On the eve of the January 2008 trial before U.S. District Judge Arthur J. Schwab, the government dismissed 43 counts.

During several weeks of testimony, the government presented dozens of witnesses, including many who told the jury about so-called "Wecht details."

They explained that Dr. Wecht had staff from the coroner's office chauffeuring his family to events and running private errands for him -- including delivering hot dogs for a political fundraiser.

Others testified that Dr. Wecht falsely inflated airfare bills submitted to private clients and charged for limousine rides that he never took.

The government also alleged that administrative assistants for Dr. Wecht, who were paid primarily by the county, performed nothing but private work for their boss.

After several weeks of testimony, the jury announced it was deadlocked on all of the counts. The government immediately said it would retry the case, but the defense filed a flurry of motions keeping it in appeals.

In September, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered that the case against Dr. Wecht could be retried, but it removed Judge Schwab, saying that everyone would benefit from a fresh set of eyes and less rancor in the courtroom.

U.S. District Judge Sean J. McLaughlin was appointed to the case in the fall and held oral argument on the various motions pending -- including the possible suppression of the search warrants.

In his 55-page opinion, Judge McLaughlin ruled that search warrants served on Dr. Wecht's private offices and on a laptop computer used by his administrative assistant were too general.

The judge wrote in his decision that had the government incorporated the supporting affidavit of probable cause with the warrants, there would not have been a problem.

Ms. Buchanan, in a moment of levity yesterday, said, "Had we used two staples, we'd still have the evidence."

She explained that the affidavit was not incorporated because the investigation was ongoing, and the government did not want to reveal too much of its case to Dr. Wecht.

"You learn," she said. "This is something I doubt will ever happen again in the Western District of Pennsylvania."

Ms. Buchanan believes the government might have had an appealable issue related to the laptop search, but even so, without the evidence from the boxes, the case would still have been difficult to win.

"The U.S. attorney's office finally recognized the inevitable, that, whatever they decided to do, the Wecht prosecution was over," said University of Pittsburgh law professor John Burkoff, who disagreed with the charges.

"The case that started with so much fanfare ends with a fizzle. It's about time."

But Ms. Buchanan continued to defend the case against Dr. Wecht.

"I'm absolutely confident it was the right prosecution to bring," she said. "This case has never been about anything other than a criminal act.

"If I could have a do-over, I'd still bring the case. Even with the tremendous criticism that's been dumped on this office, I still believe a crime was committed here."

Defense attorney Jerry McDevitt said that Ms. Buchanan's comments showed a lack of judgment on her part.

"I thought that was inappropriate and low-rent, quite frankly," he said.

University of Pittsburgh law professor David Harris said the government had no choice but to dismiss the case and that Ms. Buchanan's personal feelings are irrelevant.

"To state her belief in Dr. Wecht's guilt at the same time she dismisses the charges against him shows confusion on her part about her proper role," he said.

For Dr. Wecht, he must now decide if he should attempt to recoup his legal fees through a claim filed under the federal Hyde Amendment.

It allows the prevailing party in a case to recover fees if a prosecution was "frivolous," "vexatious," or brought in bad faith.

The standard for such a claim is very high, and it is rare to win.

"That's not foremost on my mind at this time," Dr. Wecht said. "It's not a matter of vengeance."

Throughout the case, Mr. McDevitt and Dr. Wecht's supporters repeatedly criticized the prosecution for wasting an exorbitant amount of resources on the prosecution.

Yesterday, Ms. Buchanan addressed allegations that the prosecution cost the government millions of dollars.

"That's wild exaggeration," she said.

Instead, she estimated that the cost would not have gone higher than $500,000 -- which includes the huge costs the government had to absorb to pay for copying fees for all of the evidence.

The office used its regular resources for the investigation and had one, salaried prosecutor, almost entirely dedicated to the case.

Either way, she added, "You cannot put a price on justice."

Kenneth Gormley, the interim dean at the Duquesne University School of Law, called the decision yesterday a triumph for the legal system.

"Any time a case combines tough legal issues with political overtones, it can become combustible," he said. "Cases like these are difficult even on the best day."

But for the defense, the lengthy battle that ended in victory yesterday made both Mr. McDevitt and Dr. Wecht repeat their call for Ms. Buchanan to either resign or be removed from her office.

"With Iraq, Israel, Hamas, Fatah, the economy and healthcare plan, smugglers from Mexico, swine flu and pirates in Somalia, I can't understand how President Obama has considered all of those to be a greater priority than replacing Mary Beth Buchanan," Dr. Wecht said with a smile.

But the chief prosecutor in the district yesterday reiterated the same position she's had for many months: She will remain in the U.S. attorney's office until the president asks her to leave.

Paula Reed Ward can be reached at pward@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2620. First Published June 3, 2009 4:00 AM


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