Wecht supporters criticize prosecution decision to retry
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Dr. Cyril H. Wecht, forensic scientist, author, expert witness and television personality, is too big a catch to avoid a retrial on federal corruption charges, legal experts say.
The 11 jurors deciding his fate deadlocked, unable to reach a verdict on any of the 41 counts. The judge declared a mistrial yesterday, and federal prosecutors immediately said they would retry the former Allegheny County coroner.
Members of the legal community familiar with the federal court system expected as much. Few federal cases end in mistrials, and when they do, prosecutors almost always retry.
Anything less, especially in a case as prominent as this one, would embarrass an office that wins more than 95 percent of its cases.
"Having put the prestige of the office, as well as millions of dollars in federal resources on the line, it's hard to imagine that the prosecution will now let it drop, though it seems evident that the jury didn't see the case the way they wanted it to," said former U.S. Attorney Harry Litman.
The amount of time and resources that U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan has devoted to prosecuting Dr. Wecht make it politically impossible for her to back down, said John M. Feeney, who helped to win an acquittal for the famous pathologist in a similar state case in 1981.
"If they don't go forward with another trial, they will be admitting that they didn't have anything," Mr. Feeney said. "They're not in a position to simply say, 'Well, we did it once and we're giving up at this point.' "
Stanton Levenson, a criminal defense attorney who has often battled federal prosecutors here, agreed: "In a high-profile case like this, you can't walk away."
U.S. District Judge Arthur J. Schwab asked the jurors not to talk to either side or the media.
Defense lawyers and prosecutors will likely reach out to them anyway. Without knowing why they could not reach a decision, neither side can effectively prepare for the next trial.
That's especially true for the prosecution because the defense didn't call any witnesses.
"Unfortunately for [prosecutors], they won't know what was strong or what was weak," said University of Pittsburgh law professor David Harris.
But one former juror provided some insight into what occurred in the early part of the deliberations. Stanley F. Albright, who was excused during the deliberations because doctors thought he may have been having heart problems, said jurors agreed on three counts at one point before he left.
"They must have changed their minds after that because they told the judge they couldn't agree on anything," he said.
For his part, Mr. Albright, 71, of Monroeville, said Dr. Wecht's actions may have been questionable at times but not criminal.
"I had a hard time finding a crime," said Mr. Albright. "The problem I think we had is we almost had to base our opinion on Cyril Wecht's intent. All the charges were prefixed with it being an overall scheme to defraud. How am I going to know what's in his head?"
The defense will be powerless to stop a retrial, though it probably will try. Throughout the case, Dr. Wecht's lawyers have flooded the court with motions.
The defense has already tried another gambit: appealing to a higher authority. Dr. Wecht's defense team includes former U.S. Attorney General and Pennsylvania Gov. Dick Thornburgh, who said yesterday he has approached Justice Department officials, just as he did before the indictment.
Legal observers said the Justice Department would likely hear him out but the appeal probably won't make any difference. U.S. attorneys have considerable autonomy.
Some experts have suggested that prosecutors could cut some kind of deal with Dr. Wecht.
Nicholas P. Cafardi, dean emeritus of the law school at Duquesne University, said Ms. Buchanan's office ought to look for a civil remedy, such as a fine or settlement, that would spare Dr. Wecht another trial.
"Given his age and his outstanding service to the community over the years, I would advocate for a noncriminal solution," said Mr. Cafardi, who described himself as a friend of Dr. Wecht but said his position is practical, not personal.
But a civil settlement in the Wecht case probably is impossible given the stand not only of prosecutors but of Dr. Wecht and his supporters.
His son, Ben Wecht, 43, said as much yesterday.
"The only acceptable resolution is for the government to back off, to spend its own resources fighting drug trafficking, child pornography and terrorism," he said.
Ben Wecht works at the Duquesne University institute of forensic science and law named for his father. He said he has watched his parents age before his eyes because of the stress of an indictment and trial.
"It's been horribly draining, demoralizing, debilitating," he said.
Correction/Clarification: (Published April 10, 2008) Stanley F. Albright was dismissed from the jury deliberating charges against the former Allegheny County coroner, Dr. Cyril H. Wecht. This story as originally published April 9, 2008 misidentified him as Stanley Albright II.
First Published April 9, 2008 12:00 am