Contacts with Wecht jurors criticized
Share with others:
On the day the U.S. government said it will retry Dr. Cyril H. Wecht on the same 41 counts that resulted in a hung jury, two Democratic congressmen yesterday expressed unease about the FBI contacting discharged jurors to seek information about the impasse.
U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, said it "concerns me greatly that the FBI contacted jurors at their homes to request interviews about why they deadlocked. That would be intimidating to just about anyone."
Mr. Doyle said he would be in touch with Attorney General Michael Mukasey's office "to ask him to review this case to determine whether justice would be served and taxpayers' money well spent by seeking a retrial."
Also weighing in was Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which has been investigating the 2006 firings of nine federal prosecutors around the nation.
"I am deeply troubled by reports of FBI agents contacting former jurors who failed to convict Dr. Wecht," Mr. Conyers said. "Whether reckless or intended, it is simply common sense that such contacts can have a chilling effect on future juries in this and other cases."
U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan, whose office is prosecuting Dr. Wecht, testified before the committee's investigators last year about what role she may have played in the firings. Ms. Buchanan was director of the Executive Office for United States Attorneys from June 2004 to June 2005. She signed off on the decision to retry Dr. Wecht.
"When added to the troubling conduct of this prosecution, there is the appearance of a win-at-all-costs mentality," Mr. Conyers said.
Prosecutors claim Dr. Wecht abused his position as Allegheny County coroner from 1996 to 2005 by using public resources to enrich himself. They also accuse him of defrauding private clients.
Dr. Wecht's attorneys deny the allegations and maintain that the case against their 77-year-old client, a Democrat, is politically motivated. Ms. Buchanan is a Republican.
The latest brouhaha concerns the prosecution's attempts to ask jurors their impressions about the seven-week trial, which ended Monday with the hung jury.
Legal experts said it is typical for lawyers to want feedback from jurors on the strengths and weaknesses of their case. Often, those interviews are conducted by attorneys at the courthouse.
U.S. District Judge Arthur J. Schwab, however, asked jurors to not speak publicly about the case until after the retrial.
Some experts said using FBI agents instead of attorneys to carry out the contacts was somewhat unusual but not improper. Others questioned the tactic.
"I don't think that makes any difference. They're doing it on behalf of the prosecution," said Randall D. Eliason, a law professor and former federal prosecutor in Washington, D.C. "If a federal prosecutor calls you up and asks for an interview is that less intimidating? FBI agents can't indict you."
"As a matter of legal ethics there's no prohibition on it," said Peter Henning, a former U.S. Justice Department trial attorney and Wayne State University law professor in Detroit.
"The fact that the defense doesn't have FBI agents doesn't make using FBI agents wrong. It is one government, and certainly the agents would be part of the prosecution's team."
William V. Conley, a former federal prosecutor in Pittsburgh, took a different stance.
"I certainly wouldn't go so far as to say that it's not a big deal," Mr. Conley said. "I think the average citizen would feel some sense of a need to cooperate."
William C. Snyder, another former federal prosecutor who worked in Pittsburgh and elsewhere, called the FBI contacts "extraordinary."
"I don't think it's against the law, but I think it's additional evidence that this case is not being handled as a normal course of business," Mr. Snyder said.
The Rev. Stanley F. Albright, a juror who was discharged part way through deliberations because of a medical issue, said yesterday that a female FBI agent left a message Thursday on his work phone. He called back yesterday.
The agent told him "just that the federal attorneys wanted to talk to me about how the deliberations went and that type of thing ... They said I don't have to come Downtown, they'll meet me anywhere I want to meet," he said. "They did tell me they talked to other jurors."
The Rev. Albright, 71, of Monroeville, said the agent was pleasant and polite. But he added, "Any time the FBI calls, I think you get a little intimidated."
Margaret Philbin, Ms. Buchanan's spokeswoman, confirmed that FBI agents set up appointments for prosecutors to speak with jurors.
"It is commonplace for the prosecuting attorneys and the investigating agency, in this case the FBI, to participate in the post-verdict discussion with the jurors," Ms. Philbin said. "Often that occurs before the jury leaves the courthouse. In this case the jury was excused before the attorneys and agents had an opportunity to speak with the members."
Lead defense attorney Jerry McDevitt said his office had been contacted by jurors. He drew a distinction between that and the FBI reaching out to people.
"I can think of no reason why the federal prosecutors themselves -- the attorneys -- we're only talking about 12 jurors, why they would not make between the two of them six calls apiece?" asked Mark Rush, Mr. McDevitt's partner and a former federal prosecutor.
First Published April 12, 2008 12:00 am