Prosecution cuts charges to 14 in new Wecht trial
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Only 14 of the original 84 federal felony charges filed against former Allegheny County Coroner Dr. Cyril H. Wecht nearly three years ago remain, after prosecutors yesterday announced that they plan to dismiss 27 counts of theft of honest services.
According to the defense, those counts represent all of the public corruption charges that remained against Dr. Wecht.
"I don't know why they don't just drop the whole thing," defense attorney Jerry McDevitt said after the hearing. "I know of no case where the government so overcharged any human being, failed to get a single conviction, dropped 70 charges and continued such a prosecution."
The counts that remain include five charges of wire fraud, five counts of mail fraud and four counts of theft from an organization receiving federal funds.
"What remains now are nine charges that do not involve public corruption but instead question expense charges made by Dr. Wecht to private clients, not one of whom ever complained," Mr. McDevitt said. "These charges in total involve trivial amounts, some as low as $25."
Leo Dillon, the chief of the U.S. attorney's criminal division, said that dropping the 27 counts will make the case "more conceptually easy to follow," though he doubts it would significantly reduce the length of the trial.
The first go-around included seven weeks of testimony, followed by more than three weeks of deliberations before the jury announced it was hung, and a mistrial was declared.
Further surprising the defense yesterday, prosecutors announced that they plan to ask that Dr. Wecht's case be moved to Erie for jury selection and trial.
Assistant U.S. Attorney James R. Wilson told U.S. District Judge Sean J. McLaughlin that he believes it will be impossible to find an "unpolluted" jury in the Pittsburgh area because of extensive media coverage.
Mr. Wilson plans to present to the court an "extraordinary list" of articles and Internet links to "the absolute saturation of the media on this case."
Mr. McDevitt said that it would be prejudicial to Dr. Wecht to move the case to Erie.
He estimates the cost would be hundreds of thousands of dollars for hotel rooms, renting office space and travel expenses for attorneys and witnesses.
"I think the mere request is peculiar," Mr. McDevitt said.
David A. Harris, a criminal procedure professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, agreed that the prosecution making a motion for change of venue is rare. "It's an indication of just how much trouble the government has had with this case," he said.
Moving Dr. Wecht's trial to Erie would be sending Judge McLaughlin back home. He is a judge in the Erie division of the Western District of Pennsylvania and was just assigned to the Wecht case last week.
In September, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals removed U.S. District Judge Arthur J. Schwab, who had presided in the case since the beginning.
After Dr. Wecht's trial ended with a hung jury in April, the defense filed an appeal, asking that the case be thrown out on double jeopardy grounds.
The appeals court denied the motion to dismiss, but the three-judge panel did decide to remove Judge Schwab from the case, saying everyone would benefit from having less hostility in the courtroom.
In the meantime, the defense yesterday asked Judge McLaughlin to reconsider a number of issues that Judge Schwab had ruled upon in the government's favor.
Among them was a motion for judgment of acquittal, and another for what Mr. McDevitt believes are invalid search warrants used to seize the laptop of one of Dr. Wecht's administrative assistants and boxes of records at his private office.
Judge McLaughlin said that under the Law of the Case doctrine, a new judge taking over a case should not revisit substantive motions that have already been ruled upon.
Though Judge McLaughlin did set a briefing schedule for both sides, he did not set a new trial date.
First Published November 8, 2008 12:00 am