Wecht prosecutors may seek out-of-town jury
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The U.S. government yesterday suggested that it might be tough to find a fair local jury for a retrial of Dr. Cyril H. Wecht thanks to recent media coverage of critical remarks by his defense team.
Federal prosecutors did not formally request an out-of-town jury but made a passing mention of the possible need in a court filing opposing Dr. Wecht's request to delay a retrial.
Lead defense attorney Jerry McDevitt scoffed at the idea.
"I've never heard of the government asking for a jury from a different area because of its claim that it can't get a fair trial because of bad publicity from the media," Mr. McDevitt said.
Dr. Wecht, Allegheny County's former coroner, is charged with 41 counts alleging wire fraud, mail fraud and theft from an organization receiving federal funds. A hung jury resulted in a mistrial last week, and a second trial is scheduled for May 27.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen S. Stallings said the government would accept a trial delay only to accommodate defense attorneys' schedules or "if such a continuance were to become necessary to empanel a jury untainted by defendant's unethical media campaign.
"In such a case, a short continuance might permit the court to consider empaneling the jury from a pool of prospective jurors from a different division within the district [such as Erie]," Mr. Stallings wrote. "The government submits that defendant's campaign to generate prejudicial pretrial publicity over the past week may make it difficult to empanel a jury in this division."
Jurors for federal trials in Pittsburgh can be drawn from 13 counties. Summonses for Dr. Wecht's retrial already have been sent to 400 prospective jurors. A jury is expected to be picked by May 22.
It also is possible to select jurors from 12 additional counties that provide jury pools for the two other divisions in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, Erie and Johnstown.
Seating a jury from Erie would jack up the taxpayer expense of prosecuting Dr. Wecht because jurors likely would be housed in hotels, Mr. McDevitt said.
"Do you realize what the cost of that would be?" he said. "You can assume they're not driving home at night."
Mr. Stallings complained about the Wecht team's fierce criticism -- widely reported by local media including the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette -- of the prosecution and U.S. District Judge Arthur J. Schwab, who is presiding in the case.
Dr. Wecht, a Democrat, and his lawyers have contended that he is being targeted for prosecution by Republican U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan. They have not held back in their broadsides against the government.
Mr. McDevitt has called the prosecution's case "garbage." And during the taping of KD/PG Sunday Edition last weekend, Dr. Wecht said FBI agents contacting jurors following the mistrial reminded his Norwegian wife, Sigrid, of Nazis coming into their house.
Prosecutors noted these comments in their brief and said the defense team "coordinated a false and prejudicial media blitz of staggering proportions ..." They described a "parallel fictional universe created by defendant and amplified by the media ..."
Mr. Stallings rejected defense claims that the prosecution of Dr. Wecht has been politically motivated.
First Published April 16, 2008 12:00 am