End of the road: More than the Wecht case should be over
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The case of the United States v. Dr. Cyril H. Wecht ended not with a bang and not exactly with a whimper. Though the belated dropping of this prosecution had all the makings of a whimpering shame, U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan was defiant to the end. But that was the very problem that led her to this embarrassment.
Although this prosecution managed the incredible feat of making a martyr of the irascible and unsaintly Dr. Wecht, the problem was not that the U.S. attorney first decided to prosecute. Allegations that Dr. Wecht mixed public and private business were not new and not entirely implausible, given that in 1981 he faced similar charges in state court. He beat those charges but ended up paying a civil surcharge of $200,000 in a settlement.
Putting aside defense claims that this was a politically motivated prosecution, this newspaper at the time thought the prosecutors should go ahead and present their case. After much legal jousting and acrimony, this they did -- and they came up way short. Last year a jury deadlocked on 41 counts of public corruption, although by that time the indictment sheet had shrunk from the original 84 counts.
That was the time to quit. If a jury could not agree on a conviction after hearing 10 weeks of testimony and deliberating for 10 days, it was highly unlikely any jury would. The hopelessness of the case was obvious -- obvious, that is, to everyone but the one who mattered, Mary Beth Buchanan.
Many Pittsburghers pleaded with her to stop wasting any more time and public resources on this case -- among them, this newspaper, its readers and 31 prominent local residents who signed an open, bipartisan letter to her. Among the signatories were fellow Republicans including Elsie Hillman, Melissa Hart and Jim Roddey.
But it took a new judge in the case, Sean. J. McLaughlin, to throw out crucial evidence on May 14 that set the seal of doom on these proceedings, which by then were down to a remnant 14 charges. The faulty warrant that was the basis for the ruling was itself a mistake for which Ms. Buchanan bears final responsibility.
When it finally came time to acknowledge the inevitable and seek to dismiss the charges, the U.S. attorney couldn't resist taking one last stab at vindication, saying of Dr. Wecht, "He wasn't acquitted of anything. It was a hung jury. However, in our society, everyone is innocent until proven guilty."
Indeed. And as Ms. Buchanan spectacularly failed to prove Dr. Wecht's guilt, that last insinuation of guilt was inappropriate. It is time for Ms. Buchanan to take responsibility for her failure and resign before President Barack Obama asks for her resignation, which he could not now be blamed for doing.
First Published June 4, 2009 12:00 am