Wecht case back in court but with new judge
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ERIE, Pa. -- Attorneys in the federal criminal case of former Allegheny County Coroner Dr. Cyril H. Wecht faced off in court yesterday -- engaged in wide-ranging argument in front of U.S. District Judge Sean J. McLaughlin.
Dr. Wecht's defense attorneys have raised a number of issues with the judge, who is newly assigned to the now 3-year-old case. Among them were a request to suppress evidence seized in a search of Dr. Wecht's private office, and an argument that the theft from an organization receiving federal funds charges against their client are improper because the government has never proved that the loss associated with Dr. Wecht's alleged actions reach the required $5,000 threshold.
For the government's part, prosecutors told the judge that all he is hearing from the defense is a "repackaged" argument that was before the original judge, Arthur J. Schwab, who was removed from the case last summer.
The U.S. attorney's office has made its own request, though, asking Judge McLaughlin to move Dr. Wecht's second trial to Erie because it believes it would be impossible to get a jury in Pittsburgh because of the extensive publicity of the case. The first trial ended in April in a hung jury.
The judge will issue a written opinion on all of the issues at a later date.
The lengthy hearing yesterday was much more discussion than one-sided oratory. Judge McLaughlin peppered the attorneys with questions and repeatedly summarized each point to ensure he was following their arguments.
Arguing on the theft from an organization receiving federal funds counts, defense attorney Jerry McDevitt told Judge McLaughlin that the government's method for charging Dr. Wecht isn't allowed according to the statute. The law, he said, does not include language that a defendant can be charged with a "scheme," but that's exactly how the goverment charged his client.
Further, Mr. McDevitt said, the section of the statute under which Dr. Wecht is charged does not allow for individual acts to be added together to reach the $5,000 requirement for loss.
The government contends it includes time lost by Dr. Wecht's administrative assistants doing his private work; deputy coroners performing so-called Wecht details, and the value of unclaimed bodies Dr. Wecht used for teaching purposes at Carlow University to hit at least $5,000.
"What it becomes is an amorphous blob," Mr. McDevitt said. "You don't know what you're actually charged with."
Mr. McDevitt said the government should have been able to quantify the loss, and it never did.
"Ask them to do it," he said. "They can't do it."
When Judge McLaughlin asked specifically about the administrative assistants, Mr. McDevitt countered by saying that Eileen Young, who was on the stand for several days at the first trial, fulfilled her duties to work 35 hours per week for the county.
"She testified she got all her work done," Mr. McDevitt said. "What's the loss? What is the loss to the county?"
But the judge countered with the government's point.
"It would not be a quantum leap for a jury to conclude she performed more than $5,000 worth of work in a year," he said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Leo Dillon acknowledged that quantifying the monetary loss in some cases is difficult.
"Admittedly, this is a problem," Mr. Dillon said, regarding deputy coroners. "How do you quantify what portion of their days were Wecht details?"
The judge responded: "It's a problem, but it's part of the government's burden." Later, the judge asked Mr. Dillon, "If you had it to do over again, you would have wheeled in charts. Is that what you're telling me?"
"That's what we're hoping," the prosecutor responded.
But Mr. McDevitt didn't like that answer.
"With all due respect, your honor, that's the point. They had a chance and didn't do it right the first time."
Correction/Clarification: (Published Jan. 31, 2009) Defense attorneys for former Allegheny County Coroner Dr. Cyril H. Wecht argue that the charges against him for theft from an organization receiving federal funds are improper. This story as originally published Jan. 30, 2009 listed an incorrect charge.
First Published January 30, 2009 12:00 am