New judge selected for Wecht retrial
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The case of former Allegheny County Coroner Dr. Cyril H. Wecht has been assigned to a new judge.
Whether it will go to trial before U.S. District Judge Sean J. McLaughlin, however, continues to remain a mystery.
Defense attorneys and federal prosecutors entered settlement negotiations in May. But it appeared earlier this week that the talks had stalled when the mediator handling them said he had faced a lack of cooperation.
But yesterday afternoon, the talks were back on, moving forward without former federal circuit Judge Timothy K. Lewis overseeing the discussions.
Dr. Wecht's first trial on 41 criminal counts before U.S. District Judge Arthur J. Schwab ended in a hung jury in April.
In September, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals denied a motion by Dr. Wecht to have the case against him dismissed but ordered that a new judge be appointed, saying that the process might benefit from having less rancor in the courtroom.
Since Dr. Wecht was indicted in January 2006, the case has been wrought with sarcasm, hostility and snide remarks from all sides.
Judge McLaughlin, who is based in Erie, has served on the federal bench since 1994. He has a reputation for being fair and even-handed and will hear the case in Pittsburgh.
"I would guess that you'd be hard-pressed to find anybody who wouldn't look forward to the opportunity to practice before him," said Terry Jones, a civil litigator who has practiced with and before Judge McLaughlin. "You know you're going to get a fair shake no matter what side you're on."
In the Wecht case, defense attorneys asked the appeals court to remove Judge Schwab twice in the past, claiming an appearance of bias, but the appeals court refused.
In the most recent appeal, the defense did not seek such a remedy, instead arguing that their client could not be retried based on double jeopardy.
Though the appeals court refused to throw out the case, the three-judge panel chose to remove Judge Schwab on its own.
In the meantime, Dr. Wecht's attorneys and the government had been working with Judge Lewis in an attempt to reach a civil settlement in the case -- something very rare in the world of criminal justice.
However, this week, Judge Lewis said those negotiations had broken down.
"In this matter, one side did not exhibit the interest, desire or willingness to participate in as meaningful a way as the other," he said.
Yesterday, Defense Attorney Jerry Mcdevitt said it appeared talks had stalled since U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan had not responded to e-mails or phone calls to schedule a negotiation since early October.
"We never heard from her again, nor did that office respond to Judge Lewis last week, when he tried to establish a time for further discussions," he said.
However, after the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette called seeking comment from Ms. Buchanan on Mr. McDevitt's allegations, both attorneys joined in a conference call, saying there had been a miscommunication because of demanding schedules.
"The discussions we are having continue to be ongoing," Ms. Buchanan said. "We prefer to deal directly with each other and not a third party."
Frustrated by the nearly 3-year old case, Mr. McDevitt has continually chastised the government for continuing with the prosecution.
"In the last month, we have seen the collapse of the national economy, with taxpayers having to foot the bill for over a trillion dollars amidst widespread allegations that such a financial disaster could not occur without widespread criminal fraud. The Justice Department and FBI stated in the New York Times that it lacks sufficient manpower to investigate and prosecute those responsible, yet now want to dedicate substantial resources for a mulligan prosecution of nickel-and-dime charges against Dr. Wecht that nobody wanted reprosecuted even before this economic disaster," he said.
"More than ever, this case should be dropped before it causes further damage to all concerned."
The lead prosecutor on the Wecht case, Stephen S. Stallings, has since left the U.S. attorney's office for private practice. He has been replaced by the chief of the criminal division, Leo M. Dillon.
First Published November 1, 2008 12:00 am