Ex-judge mediating resolution in Wecht case
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A former federal appellate judge is working behind the scenes to try to help prosecutors and defense attorneys reach a settlement in the ongoing legal saga involving former Allegheny County Coroner Dr. Cyril H. Wecht.
Timothy K. Lewis, a former 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judge, has been working since May to reach a resolution for the parties, short of going to trial a second time on 41 felony counts that charge Dr. Wecht misused his public office to profit in his private business.
The first trial against Dr. Wecht, 77, of Squirrel Hill, ended with a hung jury in April.
Judge Lewis said he could not comment on the mediation efforts.
U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan issued a statement yesterday, saying that she was approached several months ago by the judge "to engage in a confidential mediation to resolve the pending criminal charges."
"We did not initiate the discussions, but agreed to participate in a good faith attempt to resolve this matter," she said.
Ms. Buchanan said that if mediation is unsuccessful, she will retry Dr. Wecht.
Defense attorney Jerry McDevitt said he regretted Ms. Buchanan's decision to speak on the matter, saying that it violated the "mutual understanding agreed to with Judge Lewis that the parties would not comment."
Mr. McDevitt said the meetings with Judge Lewis were by consent.
"Following the Third Circuit's recent ruling which strongly suggested that the decision to reprosecute should be considered carefully by the United States Attorney, Judge Lewis contacted me and asked if we would meet with the United States Attorney, which we agreed to do," Mr. McDevitt wrote. "We appreciate Judge Lewis's efforts to mediate an end [to] this case, a sentiment echoed by every community leader, Republican and Democrat alike."
He went on: "Threats of a willingness to proceed to trial are counterproductive to that effort, and a needless reminder of the power of the United States Attorney to do as she pleases."
Last week the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court denied Dr. Wecht's motion to dismiss the case against him based on double jeopardy.
Legal scholars seem to agree that Judge Lewis is the right choice to help mediate a resolution in the case and avoid a retrial.
Ken Gormley, a law professor at Duquesne University, called the concept of a private mediation unheard of and praised Judge Lewis' efforts in the case.
"It's extraordinary, frankly, to have a criminal case of any sort, but especially of this magnitude, mediated by an outside party," Mr. Gormley said. "I think that, in and of itself, shows how seriously both sides have been taking this matter, and how genuine their effort is to find some resolution."
Mr. Gormley said that mediating the case would be in the best interest of not only all the parties but the justice system as well.
"There's a huge amount of emotional energy invested in a case of this magnitude," Mr. Gormley said. "It takes a huge amount of courage for the prosecutors and defense attorneys to step out on this limb."
University of Pittsburgh law Professor John Burkoff was thrilled to hear about the mediation.
"This is quite unusual, but I actually think it's a very good decision on the U.S. attorney's part to agree to an arrangement like this, and a good and wise decision on Cyril Wecht's part to agree to this," he said.
"If in fact [the judge has] been charged with simply trying to mediate an acceptable outcome for both sides, that could include a resolution that's either civil or criminal or neither."
Dr. Wecht was originally indicted on 84 counts in January 2006. Since then the case, which has been appealed multiple times, has been fraught with hostility and hard feelings.
Early on, Ms. Buchanan attempted, but failed, to have defense attorney Mark Rush removed from the case for a potential conflict of interest. Later when Mr. McDevitt took over as lead counsel, the animus between him and lead prosecutor Stephen S. Stallings was palpable.
Run-of-the-mill court filings were filled with vitriol, and everyday court hearings turned into sideshows.
Contributing to the rancor were some rulings by U.S. District Judge Arthur J. Schwab that were often protested by Dr. Wecht's defense team. Among them was a requirement that all pretrial arguments be done in writing and the admission of hundreds of thousands of pages of government exhibits en masse.
Dr. Wecht's defense team had such firm objections to the judge's procedures and rulings that they twice filed petitions with the appellate court to have him removed.
As part of its ruling last week, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court removed Judge Schwab from the case.
Judge Lewis, a Republican, was appointed to the bench in the Western District of Pennsylvania by President George H.W. Bush in 1991. He served for just over a year before being confirmed for a newly created seat on the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. He resigned in 1999. Since then, he has been working in private practice.
Among his areas of expertise are complex arbitration, commercial litigation and alternative dispute resolution.
"He's smart. He's sensitive. He's a terrific choice to deal with the particularly complicated set of circumstances in this case," Mr. Burkoff said.
First Published September 13, 2008 12:00 am