Wecht defense rests case, calls no witnesses
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The biggest question of Dr. Cyril H. Wecht's federal fraud trial -- whether the verbose and volatile former Allegheny County coroner would take the stand in his own defense -- was answered yesterday in surprising and brief fashion.
After the prosecution announced it had rested its case following 44 witnesses, hundreds of exhibits and 22 days of testimony, lead defense attorney Jerry McDevitt quietly stood up and said he was resting as well.
No defense witnesses (there were 84 on the list). No more testimony. And no climactic showdown between Dr. Wecht and the prosecutors who have spent two years stitching together the case against him.
"I thought it was a very smart move," said Stanton Levenson, a Pittsburgh criminal defense lawyer for 41 years.
"I think that puts them in the position to argue that the case the government presented was very weak and required no response on the part of the defense, that Dr. Wecht entered a plea of not guilty, and that's sufficient."
Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond law professor, echoed that sentiment, but said there was a flip side.
"It also happens sometimes when you're afraid to put the defendant on the stand," Mr. Tobias said. "I think it's a fairly bold move because you're trusting that you made the right call and you've properly read the jury and they're leaning in your favor."
Mr. McDevitt and his partner, Mark Rush, declined comment on their announcement, as did Dr. Wecht.
"I look forward to closing," was all Mr. McDevitt would say as he left the courtroom.
Those closing arguments are scheduled for Monday morning. U.S. District Court Judge Arthur J. Schwab has given each side 90 minutes to make their final pitch to jurors.
It is not unheard of in criminal cases for defendants not to take the stand or even for defense attorneys to not call any witnesses, though such moves might raise the eyebrows of some jurors.
More witnesses means more chances for prosecutors to cross-examine. And whether to put the defendant on is a double-edged sword.
"The jury could say, 'If he really didn't do this, why didn't he get on the witness stand and tell us that,'" said Mr. Levenson, who makes a practice of trying to keep his clients from testifying.
But, he added, that's better than putting the defendant on and having the jury say, "I didn't like him or I didn't believe him."
And with a defendant like Dr. Wecht -- intelligent but sarcastic, genial to some but caustic to others -- some might think the smartest move would be to keep him from going toe-to-toe with prosecutors.
Throughout the trial, Judge Schwab has instructed witnesses to give "teaspoon" answers to "teaspoon" questions, meaning witnesses should not go off on tangents but should stick narrowly to the question. Dr. Wecht is known for giving gallon-sized answers.
Dr. Wecht is charged with 41 offenses involving wire fraud, mail fraud, and theft from an organization receiving federal funds, namely Allegheny County.
Prosecutors allege that while Dr. Wecht was the coroner, he used county resources -- including his staff, fax machines, phone lines, vehicles and even unclaimed bodies -- to benefit his private multimillion-dollar autopsy and consultation business, Cyril H. Wecht and Pathology Associates.
They also claim he schemed to defraud his private clients by inflating airfares for which he was reimbursed, fabricated invoices for limousine rides he never took and billed clients for mileage expenses while he used a county car and never passed the money on to county coffers.
Prosecutors allege that Dr. Wecht carried out several of those schemes by using fax transmissions or sending invoices through the U.S. mail.
Should the Wecht defense team have called witnesses to try to address every alleged instance of a crime? Not necessarily.
"There's not much point in trying to rebut every individual instance if you're arguing to the jury that what the prosecution has shown has not demonstrated an overall pattern of abuse," said Duquesne University law professor Bruce Ledewitz, a friend of Dr. Wecht's for 24 years. "They're not going to convict on a federal charge because the guy took home paper clips."
First Published March 12, 2008 12:00 am