2008-11-13 / Local & State

Feds Again Reducing Counts Against Top Pathologist

By Joe Mandak ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

PITTSBURGH (AP) - Federal prosecutors in Pittsburgh are seeking to drop more than half the counts against celebrity pathologist Cyril Wecht before his retrial, saying it will make the case easier on the jury they hope will convict him.

Prosecutors say Wecht, the former Allegheny County coroner, used government staff and equipment to benefit his lucrative private practice. The forensic expert has used the practice to investigate famous deaths, including those of child beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey, Clinton White House deputy counsel Vince Foster and Elvis Presley.

Wecht was originally indicted on 84 theft- and fraud-related counts.

Prosecutors dismissed 43 of the counts to "streamline'' the complicated case before the first trial. Jurors heard seven weeks of testimony and then deliberated for more than 50 hours over 11 days, but they could not agree on a verdict and a mistrial was declared in April.

U.S. District Judge Sean Mc- Laughlin had planned to set a new trial date Friday but decided not to because he expects pretrial arguments to delay the second trial. At the hearing, prosecutors revealed that they would again reduce the number of counts.

McLaughlin is expected to grant the motion to dismiss 27 counts of theft of honest services because Wecht's defense team doesn't object. That would leave Wecht facing 14 counts.

"They've dropped 70 felony charges against this man that we've had to defend against for two years,'' said Wecht's attorney, Jerry McDevitt. "I don't get the sense that anybody (in the public) wants this man put through this ordeal again.''

Assistant U.S. Attorney Leo Dillon said that dismissing the charges will further simplify the case for the jury, but that the underlying allegations against Wecht will remain the same.

Prosecutors also said Friday that they want the trial moved 120 miles away to Erie because of intense local media coverage.

Assistant U.S. Attorney James Wilson told McLaughlin that moving the trial is necessary because of the "absolute saturation of the media coverage'' the case has received in Pittsburgh. He said he doesn't believe an unbiased jury can be found in the area.

McDevitt opposes the move, calling it "peculiar.'' He said it's unfair to ask Wecht to pay for himself and his defense team to travel to Erie, especially since the purpose of the prosecution is to protect citizens in Allegheny County from misuse of government resources.

Prosecutors contend that Wecht used deputy coroners, secretaries and lab workers to run errands and do work on private cases, and that he sent bills and other correspondence to his private clients using the county's fax machine.

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