PITTSBURGH – The criminal case against celebrity pathologist Dr. Cyril Wecht ended Tuesday when federal prosecutors, citing a judge's ruling that threw out much of the government's evidence, dropped all the remaining fraud and theft counts against him.
Prosecutors originally indicted Wecht, the former Allegheny County medical examiner, on 84 counts in January 2006. The case was whittled down before trial, which ended in a hung jury, and trimmed again after trial. Wecht had 14 counts remaining, but the government's case was undermined when a judge threw out two search warrants.
"The district court's May 14th ruling suppressed crucial evidence in the case," U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan said Tuesday. "This impacted our ability to present our evidence at any future trial and to sustain our burden of proof."
Wecht, 78, is renowned for his work on deaths such as those of Elvis Presley, JonBenet Ramsey and Vince Foster. He has testified in numerous high-profile cases and was a frequent TV guest in the months preceding the 1994 O.J. Simpson homicide trial.
The final counts dropped Tuesday had accused him of overbilling private clients for limousines and air fares; ripping off prosecutors for mileage fees as an expert witness; and using his county government staff to benefit his multimillion-dollar private practice.
When Wecht was first indicted and resigned his county job, the main accusations against him were the same, but they were more detailed and, in one instance, more macabre. Among other things, Wecht was accused of giving unclaimed county cadavers for students to study at a local university in return for private lab and office space.
Wecht was pleased that the case was dropped and was critical of Buchanan, saying she had no shame.
"Is this the way justice is pursued in America? I think the record will speak for itself. As for her record, that will speak for itself too," he said at a news conference, where he held up a framed order of the case's dismissal.
He said he'll continue working as a pathologist and expert witness and was considering writing a book.
Wecht said he planned to celebrate by baby-sitting his grandchildren; his daughter is an obstetrician and would be on call.
Wecht's supporters claimed the case was a multimillion-dollar effort to convict him of crime for, at most, minor abuses of power and his government staff.
Buchanan defended the prosecution.
"This was a use of county resources, a use of our taxpayer dollars for private gain," Buchanan said. "That's fraud, that's a crime and this case was worth bringing."
Buchanan maintains Wecht routinely used his county deputies to run personal and private business errands, and that his chief county administrative assistant spent nearly all her time on private cases. She acknowledged, however, that prosecutors should not have brought such a wide-ranging indictment against Wecht in the first place.
"As prosecutors, we sometimes err on the side of wanting to give the jury everything we have," Buchanan said. "Had we had it to do all over again, we'd probably err on the other side."
The original 84-count indictment was simplified to 41 charges for a jury that, nonetheless, couldn't reach a verdict in April 2008. Afterward, the original trial judge was booted off the case by an appeals court that felt the rancorous case needed "fresh eyes."
Prosecutors vowed to retry Wecht, and further pared the indictment to 14 counts. That gave Wecht's attorney's a second shot at getting evidence thrown out. The new judge, U.S. District Judge Sean McLaughlin, sided with the defense in ruling two search warrants were unfairly broad.
Buchanan said the warrants could have been more specific, but argued that a sealed FBI affidavit not attached to the warrants fairly and legally restricted the searches. Buchanan said agents conducted a legal, limited search even though the warrant, on its face, wasn't specific enough.
"What they had in their heads (to look for specifically) was not what was on the warrant," Buchanan said.
She said she doesn't view dropping the charges as vindicating Wecht.
"He wasn't acquitted of anything. I mean, it was a hung jury," Buchanan said. "However, everyone in our society is innocent until proven guilty so, as we stand here today, he's still innocent."
She added: "I still believe a crime was committed here and there was evidence to support it."