Final arguments made in case against Wecht
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Defense attorney Jerry McDevitt yesterday decried the prosecution of Dr. Cyril H. Wecht as a "miscarriage of justice" and contended that despite years of investigation and 22 days of trial testimony, the government produced no evidence directly linking the former Allegheny County coroner to any of the 41 criminal charges against him.
"Think about how precious little evidence was ever really produced in this case about Dr. Wecht. You heard about everybody but him," Mr. McDevitt told jurors during his closing argument in U.S. District Court. "Ladies and gentlemen, it took seven weeks and 44 witnesses, and they did not come close to proving one crime by this man -- not close."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen S. Stallings had a quick response in his rebuttal, the legal equivalent of last licks.
He whipped out several props, including a sticky note written by Dr. Wecht telling his administrative assistant to charge a private client $80 for a round-trip limousine ride he never took.
"This is his handwriting. This is his ink right here. ...'Add $80 ground transportation, Pittsburgh.' " Mr. Stallings said. "That's his intent, ladies and gentlemen. He did this on purpose."
To prosecutors, Dr. Wecht seized every opportunity he could to cut private costs for his multimillion-dollar autopsy and consulting business by foisting them onto taxpayers.
The forensic pathologist, they said, used coroner's office employees as messengers, couriers and chauffeurs. Doing so saved him from paying for gasoline, cab fares, shuttle service and parking for more than 60 trips a year to and from the airport on private business. They said he also defrauded private clients by inflating airfare and charging for fake limousine rides.
Mr. McDevitt minimized the value of the faxes and mailings that form the bulk of the criminal charges, saying they stacked up to $3.96 for 24 faxes and less than three hours of a secretary's time over five years.
Mr. Stallings' colleague, Assistant U.S. Attorney James R. Wilson, guided jurors through what the prosecution called in its opening statement the "heart" of its case -- the four components on which the charges of wire fraud, mail fraud and theft from an organization receiving federal funds are based.
They involved alleged misuse of deputy coroners, the coroner's histology laboratory and Dr. Wecht's administrative assistants, as well as an agreement with Carlow University for free lab space, partly in exchange for cadavers from the morgue.
Dr. Wecht's administrative assistants were among the best paid in Allegheny County, but the government contended they hardly did any work on behalf of the coroner's office. Mostly, prosecutors said, they attended to bookkeeping, billing and client intake for Dr. Wecht's private business.
Mr. Wilson noted that Dr. Wecht's private business earned $790,000 in 2004 from consultations alone, and all the paperwork was handled by his former top administrative assistant, Eileen Young.
"It is her conduct in running the defendant's private business out of the Allegheny County coroner's office on county time while being paid a county salary that constitutes the foundation for all 41 counts of this indictment," Mr. Wilson said, not something Dr. Wecht allowed to be done "in a fit of inattention."
"There is a purpose behind that," Mr. Wilson told jurors, "there is a design, there is a plan."
When Dr. Wecht in 2003 rejected a dramatic fee hike to $60,000 a year by the Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science for space to conduct his private autopsy work, they said he set his sights on Carlow University, where he was given free lab space.
In return, the government contended, he wrongly provided unclaimed cadavers from the county morgue, which involved subordinates circumventing procedures for contacting next of kin.
"What is wrong is the defendant using his position and authority as coroner to hijack bodies to meet his private obligations under a private, for-profit contract between his autopsy business and [then-] Carlow College," Mr. Wilson said.
Mr. Stallings added a new dimension to the case yesterday when he told jurors that after Dr. Wecht became coroner in 1996, he boosted the price for autopsies the office did for other counties to $1,100 -- more than the $885 his private practice charged, thereby undercutting Allegheny County and blocking money from flowing to public coffers.
Whereas prosecutors painted a "simple" case of fraud and theft orchestrated by the 76-year-old forensic pathologist during his 10 years as coroner,
Mr. McDevitt portrayed Dr. Wecht as a selfless teacher and scientist in pursuit of justice who ran afoul of big government.
Mr. McDevitt said the case, built on "prosecutorial overreaching" and a "get Wecht" mentality, was not about bribes or kickbacks.
"If you don't have that, then what you take is a shotgun and fill it up with a bunch of legal buckshot and shoot it blindly around the room, hoping that one pellet, one pellet hits the bird and kills the bird," Mr. McDevitt said. "It's the legal equivalent of throwing mud at the wall."
Mr. McDevitt criticized the government for not reflecting favorable testimony for Dr. Wecht in written reports the FBI made after interviewing witnesses, and appealed to jurors to acquit him.
"Don't do an injustice here. This man has spent his life getting justice for people," Mr. McDevitt said. "Please do it to him now. Forty-one times not guilty. No buckshot. No miscarriage of justice."
In his own parting shot, Mr. Wilson borrowed a line from Mr. McDevitt, who on Jan. 28 said of his client: "We will prove to you he is the best bargain Allegheny County ever had."
"Allegheny County," Mr. Wilson told the jury, "was the best bargain that Cyril Wecht ever had."
First Published March 18, 2008 12:00 am