Wecht lawyers take knife to cadaver claims
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Talk of cadavers again took center stage yesterday in Dr. Cyril H. Wecht's federal fraud trial, as defense attorney Jerry McDevitt tried to use prosecutors' own exhibits to dismantle their accusations about a body-trading agreement with Carlow University.
On the 19th day of the trial, Mr. McDevitt showed morgue reports on 16 bodies to former chief deputy coroner Joseph Dominick, noting that a dozen appeared to be unclaimed. That designation means family members either could not be located or were not interested in or able to claim the bodies.
Those bodies were shipped to Carlow in 2004 and 2005 to be dissected as part of an autopsy technician program taught by Dr. Wecht while he was still Allegheny County coroner.
The government alleges in its 41-count indictment that Dr. Wecht received lab space from Carlow to conduct autopsies for his private business in exchange for cadavers "and other consideration." That allegation goes to the heart of what prosecutors claim was a scheme to use county resources for private benefit.
Mr. Dominick, who is the second government witness to testify under immunity, said Dr. Wecht had jurisdiction under state law to send the unclaimed bodies to educational institutions.
Three cadavers that went to Carlow that were not documented as unclaimed were shipped in November 2005. Mr. McDevitt noted that three of them were signed off on by the same deputy coroner, John J. Smith.
Mr. Dominick told jurors Monday that around November 2005, FBI agent Bradley Orsini, the lead investigator in the Wecht case, was spending time regularly at the coroner's office.
Mr. McDevitt was clearly intimating a link between problems suddenly cropping up with cadavers that were not unclaimed going to Carlow and the presence of Mr. Orsini, but he has not established a clear theory for the jury.
Mr. Dominick testified that Carlow students in the autopsy technician program taught by Dr. Wecht benefited greatly, particularly by being able to watch autopsies on homicide victims from other counties with whom Dr. Wecht privately contracted.
He also said there could be benefits even for autopsies conducted on the unclaimed cadavers of elderly people who died of natural causes, such as finding a previously undetected medical error.
Mr. McDevitt has been waging a behind-the-scenes battle with the government about the body-trading allegation, arguing that prosecutors have not presented any evidence to back up the accusation as written in the indictment against Dr. Wecht. Prosecutors' efforts in court, he has argued, seek to improperly update the indictment.
"The indictment alleges a straight quid pro quo agreement entered into and performed beginning in or around June 2003," according to a recent defense motion. "The government knows full well, and has for some time, that not a single unclaimed cadaver, or any cadaver, was sent to Carlow in 2003 at all."
Indeed, documents shown to jurors clearly show no bodies being shipped before September 2004.
Prosecutors have responded that they never alleged bodies began to ship in 2003, but that Dr. Wecht made arrangements with Carlow that year for his lab space.
In a filing Tuesday, the government said there are two problems with Dr. Wecht's conduct in connection with the cadavers.
"The first is that he used his position as coroner to send bodies to Carlow in connection with a private arrangement that provided him with lab space free of charge," the government wrote.
"The second is that in so abusing his position as coroner he breached his duties to the public and the decedents' families, and violated his own office's policies, by sending the bodies either while next of kin were being sought, or in some cases, after they were located."
The judge ruled that Dr. Wecht's motion and analysis contained "dubious and one-sided inferences and characterizations of evidence ..."
Mr. Dominick was expected to return to the stand today.
First Published March 6, 2008 12:00 am