Many questions surround Wecht retrial, set for May
Former Coroner Dr. Cyril H. Wecht leaves the federal courthouse yesterday after a mistrial was declared in his case. At left is his wife, Sigrid.
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Dr. Cyril H. Wecht has lived to fight another day, and that's exactly what he'll have to do.
Moments after U.S. District Judge Arthur J. Schwab announced yesterday that an 11-member jury was deadlocked on the 41 federal counts against the former Allegheny County coroner, the judge asked whether the government had a decision about retrying the case.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen S. Stallings jumped from his seat and said: "We do, your honor, and we will."
The judge set the trial for May 27.
Knowing that Round Two looms tempered any sense of triumph among Dr. Wecht and his attorneys. They had battled the government to a standstill during a seven-week trial in which the defense did not call a single witness.
"There's no real celebration," Dr. Wecht, 77, said at a news conference in his attorneys' Downtown offices, his wife, Sigrid, by his side. "We're very serious. We're very somber."
Dr. Wecht said he had been "hurt badly" by the federal investigation and trial. That said, he appeared relaxed, unworried, and as talkative as ever in his first public comments about the case since his trial began Jan. 28 on charges of wire fraud, mail fraud and theft from an organization receiving federal funds.
- McDevitt: 'What happened in that courtroom today was an utter disgrace'
- McDevitt: 'This jury was very fair'
- McDevitt: 'You should be able to debrief the jury'
- Thornburgh: 'These charges should never have been brought'
- Thornburgh: 'This case is so inconsequential ...'
"Call and cancel your luncheon appointments," Dr. Wecht joked as he began his remarks, poking fun at his propensity for lengthy ad-libbing.
Dr. Wecht's attorneys spared no adjectives in criticizing the trial, the judge, the speed with which the government decided to try again, and what they perceived as political motivation that led Republican U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan to prosecute Dr. Wecht, a lifelong Democrat.
"The government has utterly failed to prove their case, and it's time, in my view, for these charges to be dismissed and for Dr. Wecht to be able to get on with his life," said former U.S. Attorney and Pennsylvania Gov. Dick Thornburgh, a member of the defense team.
Mr. Thornburgh, himself a Republican, called the prosecution a "miscarriage of justice" and said he had been in touch with U.S. Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey.
"He knows what our grievances are," Mr. Thornburgh said. "I think we can make a persuasive case that this prosecution should be dismissed forthwith."
More than 25 years ago, Dr. Wecht fought similar state charges. All but one charge was dismissed and he was acquitted on the final count. This time around, Dr. Wecht faces a foe with perhaps a steelier resolve.
Ms. Buchanan was out of town but issued a brief statement that said her office is "committed to eliminating the culture of corruption that prevails when officials at the highest levels abuse the public trust. Allegations of wrongdoing by public officials can be both challenging to investigate and to prove."
Lead defense attorney Jerry McDevitt had a quick response: "Well, that's nothing more than Ms. Buchanan putting lipstick on a corpse."
Prosecutors accused Dr. Wecht of misusing the resources of the coroner's office to run his private autopsy and consulting business. They also claimed he defrauded private clients by billing for inflated plane fares and fake limousine rides he never took.
With 44 witnesses and hundreds of documents, Mr. Stallings and Assistant U.S. Attorney James R. Wilson portrayed Dr. Wecht as a cheapskate who treated his staff like servants and availed himself of every opportunity to cut his private business costs by transferring them to taxpayers.
Current and former coroner's office employees testified about performing a myriad of personal errands while on county time, being drafted for political fund raising on behalf of Dr. Wecht's son, Common Pleas Court Judge David Wecht, and handling the books and records for Cyril H. Wecht & Pathology Associates.
Prosecutors also contended that Dr. Wecht wrongfully sent 16 cadavers from the morgue to Carlow University, where he had established a program for autopsy technicians, in exchange for free lab space for his private autopsies.
The government never put a total dollar figure on how much Dr. Wecht allegedly cost the county, although Mr. McDevitt did -- a mere $3.96 for faxes.
Prosecutors argued that the more important figure was the hundreds of thousands of dollars Dr. Wecht reaped from the invoices his secretaries wrote and transmitted from a county fax machine at the coroner's office.
But the government did not prove that Dr. Wecht's secretaries, whom they suggested ran his private business while on county time, did not fulfill their public duties.
And the prosecutors' own best witness about the alleged cadaver deal, former Carlow President Sister Grace Ann Geibel, lauded Dr. Wecht, denied any quid-pro-quo pact and criticized how the case was handled.
Defense attorneys chalked up any problems to innocent billing errors by a brilliant and unusually busy man whose forte was science, not administration.
Dr. Wecht sarcastically confronted one part of the government's allegations about making deputy coroners drive with him to the airport when he went out of town on business trips.
"I can tell you this, some of them used to push and shove, literally, certainly figuratively, in seeing who would drive with me to the airport to tell me about their problems, to complain about the way they were being treated by one of their supervisors, to ask me about another shift. ... And all of a sudden I'm sitting there in the court, and gee, all of these horrendous things."
When the trial began, Mr. Stallings told jurors that the case was "simple."
But the deliberations, which dragged on for 10 days -- jurors convened at 8 a.m. yesterday, Day 11, just long enough to inform the judge they were at an impasse -- proved to be anything but.
One juror was dismissed for medical reasons in the thick of deliberations, and the panel indicated as early as the sixth day there might be problems reaching a verdict. On Thursday, each juror told Judge Schwab the group could not come to a unanimous decision. They were sent back for more.
Mr. McDevitt, who twice tried to have Judge Schwab removed before the trial started, said he would "probably" again endeavor to have him yanked.
He also said plenty of problems cropped up at trial that he would present to Judge Schwab in motions, but he held out little hope things would go his way.
"He hasn't granted any yet," Mr. McDevitt said. "It was a very peculiar trial, to say the least, with the rules of evidence essentially thrown out the window. The prosecution was allowed to do anything it wanted to do."
Attorneys gathered at 9:15 a.m., about 20 minutes after being summoned by the judge.
Judge Schwab ordered everyone to remain seated and quiet and then told the packed courtroom that the jury was hung. Before declaring a mistrial, he asked jurors not to speak to anyone -- including reporters and attorneys -- before the retrial ended.
Mr. McDevitt, who described yesterday's courtroom proceedings as "Kafkaesque" and the case as "disgraceful," vowed he would not back down.
Dr. Wecht's attorneys denounced the snappy decision for a retrial -- particularly since attorneys did not have a chance to speak with jurors and learn whether they might have been leaning toward acquittal or conviction -- and called the move "orchestrated."
Dr. Wecht said the case took a drastic personal, professional and financial toll. He said only his family -- four children and 11 grandchildren -- and his extensive private work, which has continued unabated, kept him sane since he came under investigation in late 2004.
"The toll on my family has been horrendous," Dr. Wecht said. "We've been living under this cloud for all that time. The emotional drain has been absolutely unbelievable."
First Published April 9, 2008 12:00 am