Jury in Wecht case favored conviction by 6-5, juror says
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The jury in the federal trial of Dr. Cyril H. Wecht split 6-5 in favor of conviction on 17 of the 41 public corruption counts against the former Allegheny County coroner, according to a letter from a juror released yesterday by the U.S. government.
The disclosure marks the first public indication of the exact split among the 11 jurors -- one juror was dismissed for medical reasons part way through deliberations. A mistrial was declared and a new trial is set for May 27.
The letter was included in a court filing responding to defense allegations that the government might have improperly identified jurors and used FBI agents to contact them after the case ended last week. Prosecutors denied the accusations.
Since the mistrial, the government said, "the defense unleashed a staggering onslaught of unethical extrajudicial statements" alleging that a majority of the jury wanted to acquit Dr. Wecht.
However, the government argued, the juror's letter shows that "the majority of jurors were actually prepared to convict the defendant."
The female author of the letter, who was not identified by prosecutors, did not indicate how the panel split on the other 24 counts. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was unable independently to verify the author's identity beyond gender. There were six women on the jury.
"I am pleased the federal government has decided to pursue the charges of fraud against Dr. Cyril Wecht. Following weeks of testimony and challenging deliberations, I was relieved the federal government will pursue this case beyond the most recent jury panel," the juror wrote to the government Saturday in a letter that prosecutors said was unsolicited.
The author said the jury foreman resisted asking for a final vote on the charges on April 7, the day before the mistrial was declared. The foreman could not be reached for comment.
"Even if true, a split jury is hardly a reason to spend a fortune trying again," Dr. Wecht's lead attorney, Jerry McDevitt, said.
The Rev. Stanley Albright, the dismissed juror, said yesterday that on the seventh day of deliberations, the jury foreman went around the room and took a vote. He said the panel was unanimous on acquitting Dr. Wecht of three mail fraud counts and split on the other charges, with nine for acquittal, two for conviction and one undecided.
Also yesterday, a congressional panel said the prosecution of Dr. Wecht by "politically connected" U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan of Pittsburgh "continues to raise concern about selective prosecution."
The report by the House Judiciary Committee's Democratic majority staff sheds no new light on the inner workings of the Wecht prosecution and does not come to any conclusion about whether the case is politically motivated.
The Wecht case is one of three cited by the committee in which concerns about political motivations are "especially intense."
"Each of these matters presents a questionable exercise of prosecutorial discretion and they often involve charges that appear to elevate routine political fund raising or similarly mundane conduct into aggressive federal criminal charges," the report says.
Dr. Wecht is charged with 41 public corruption counts involving wire fraud, mail fraud and theft from an organization receiving federal funds.
The congressional report describes Dr. Wecht, a Democrat, as "an outspoken critic of Republican policies.candidates, office-holders and policies."
Ms. Buchanan, a Republican, told the committee that she has never brought corruption charges against a GOP official, according to the report. She declined comment yesterday.
The committee said the Justice Department blocked efforts to obtain information. Ms. Buchanan was interviewed in connection with the firings of nine U.S. attorneys in 2006, "but the department (and committee minority staff) objected to questions regarding the Wecht matter and only limited information was obtained," the report states.
As a result, the committee wrote, "key facts remain unknown and reliable final judgments cannot be made."
"However, given the troublesome facts identified to date, it is clear at a minimum that current and former department leadership has been derelict in failing to review these matters and reassure the American people that federal law enforcement is impartial and fair."
In a letter to Attorney General Michael Mukasey, the committee asked for extensive documents regarding the Wecht case.
Justice Department spokesman Peter Carr said the department is reviewing the report.
First Published April 18, 2008 12:50 am