Wecht judge says he won't step aside
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The federal judge presiding in the case against Dr. Cyril H. Wecht yesterday refused to delay a retrial and said he would not recuse himself.
In his order, U.S. District Judge Arthur J. Schwab also defended his conduct during the first trial while lambasting defense attorneys for theirs since the jury deadlocked last week and a mistrial was declared.
Judge Schwab said the defense team's contention that a May 27 retrial date was too soon does not hold water in light of their "relentless media activities" and "a carefully orchestrated and massive media campaign" to portray him as biased.
He also criticized defense efforts to remove him from the case through two unsuccessful requests to a federal appeals court based on "unfounded and exaggerated accusations."
Dr. Wecht's lawyers have indicated they would petition the appeals court for a third time -- a move that the judge said would be unprecedented.
Judge Schwab described those efforts as "repeated and improper attempts at judge-shopping and disruption of the proceedings."
He said he provided a "fair and even-handed administration of justice" and noted that he sought advice throughout the Wecht case from his peers on the bench.
Hours before Judge Schwab issued his order, Dr. Wecht and his attorneys pulled a new weapon from their arsenal: a bipartisan open letter signed by 33 prominent local residents asking U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey to dismiss the 41-count indictment against the former Allegheny County coroner.
"You brought your case to the people. The people have spoken. You have discharged your duty. Do not now summarily dismiss the findings of this jury, but rather dismiss the indictment," the letter says.
A copy was hand-delivered to the office of U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan, who is pursuing the retrial of Dr. Wecht on public corruption charges.
She issued a brief statement yesterday saying: "Our decision to bring this case is based upon the law and the evidence alone."
Peter Carr, a Justice Department spokesman, confirmed receipt of the letter and said considering retrials was not uncommon when juries do not reach a verdict.
Ms. Buchanan's efforts have garnered criticism from Dr. Wecht's lawyers, who contend that the Republican has targeted their client because he is a Democrat.
One of those lawyers, former U.S. attorney general and Republican Pennsylvania Gov. Dick Thornburgh, testified before a congressional panel about politics and the Wecht case.
Signing the letter were such prominent Republicans as Elsie Hillman, former Congresswoman Melissa Hart and Jim Roddey, chairman of the Allegheny County Republican Party and the county's first chief executive.
"I don't see what value there is retrying this case," Mr. Roddey said. "I'm a friend of Mary Beth Buchanan. I'm an admirer of hers. I just hope that she will now decide that's enough."
"It's clear that this isn't a federal case. It shouldn't have been tried there in the first place, and any consideration to actually try it again seems unreasonable," said Ms. Hart, who served for four years on the House Judiciary Committee.
The GOP signatories joined a who's who of current and former Democratic power brokers including erstwhile Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy, ex-city Councilman Sala Udin, state Rep. Dan Frankel of Squirrel Hill, and most of the Democratic County Council members.
Federal prosecutors have accused Dr. Wecht of breaking the law by misusing county resources while he served as coroner for private gain. They also allege that he bilked private clients.
Jurors were unable to come to a unanimous verdict on any of the counts.
"I'm extremely grateful to all these people for their willingness to sign on. It's very heartwarming to me and my wife and I'm truly overwhelmed," Dr. Wecht, 77, said.
Another Republican signer was James Treher Sr., 79, a retired FBI agent who was a Bethel Park councilman and head of the county police training academy.
"We're assailed by terrorism, narcotics, gang wars, God knows what all," Mr. Treher said, "yet we take all the resources of the Justice Department to persecute a guy because he's personally obnoxious to some people."
First Published April 17, 2008 12:07 am