Celebrity Coroner Accused of Trading Cadavers

In television coverage of high-profile trials such as the O.J. Simpson and Scott Peterson cases and celebrity deaths from Heath Ledger and Anna Nicole Smith's son to Jon Benet Ramsey and Chandra Levy, he's a ubiquitous presence.

Cyril H. Wecht, one of the country's most prominent pathologists, is used to testifying in hundreds of trials, expounding on the gritty details of autopsies and causes of death.

But in his latest day in court, the affable 76-year-old doctor finds himself on trial for the second time in his life, facing 41 criminal counts that could put him in jail for more than 20 years.

Wecht, a former Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, commissioner, is accused of using his government employees to walk his dog, buy nose plugs for his swimming exercise, chauffeur him to Pittsburgh Steelers games and help perform autopsies for his private business. The extra tasks were called "Wecht details" by his staff.

Wecht, who has pleaded not guilty to the charges, finds his lucrative career and his reputation on the line.

No one from his legal team would comment on the case.

Wecht rose to prominence as a consultant in high-profile cases such as the Robert F. Kennedy assassination in 1968, the Sharon Tate murders and the Symbionese Liberation Army deaths in 1974 and for writing a book on Jon Benet Ramsey, in which he argued that her death was accidental. He is most famous for disputing the single-bullet theory in the assassination of President Kennedy.

Hot-Dog Delivery

In one of the trial's more bizarre moments, Ed Strimlan, chief investigator for the medical examiner's office who worked under Wecht, described how he was once told to buy hot dogs with his own money and deliver them in the coroner's office van to a political event for Wecht's son David Wecht, who was running for prothonotary.

While earning $60,000 from the county and only performing a "handful" of autopsies, Wecht made millions by getting his staff to help perform 300 private autopsies, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Stallings in his opening statements in federal court in Pittsburgh, Monday morning.

"He stole," said Stallings. "And he did it for the same simple reasons people have stolen for thousands of years. That's because he wanted to make more money, and he thought he could get away with it."

Wecht allegedly used a county-paid histologist to perform slide work in the laboratory for his private business, paying $3 a slide while billing his private clients $10 per slide, according to Stallings.

One of the more serious charges is that Wecht allegedly used 16 unclaimed bodies from the county morgue and traded them for free laboratory space at Carlow College. Stallings said that Wecht's staff lied to a funeral director who was given a false death certificate for a man he buried whose family had not given permission for the body to be used for science.

The name of the deceased was not released and the funeral director was not named, though Stallings said he plans to call him to testify.

"The next of kin was not notified or consented, the county didn't approve and the families got extra grief," said the prosecutor. "But the defendant received a lab he could use without paying rent."

Accusations in 1980s

The charges mirror similar accusations in the early 1980s, when Wecht was charged with using county employees for his private practice. He was removed from his position although he later settled the case for $200,000 and returned to the same job in 1996.

This time around, Wecht has assembled a dream team of lawyers and supporters, including Richard Thornburgh, a former U.S attorney general and Pennsylvania governor, who sat with Wecht's wife during opening arguments.

Thornburgh has reached out to the highest levels of the Justice Department to help his friend, calling Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty in January 2006 to request that he intervene to get U.S. Attorney Beth Buchanan to delay any indictment and to back off arresting the pathologist. Those details were included in an affidavit in the case submitted by Thornburgh.

Thornburgh also believes that the prosecution of Wecht might be politically motivated, telling a House Judiciary Subcommittee in October that he thinks Buchanan targeted Wecht because he's a Democrat who once ran for the Senate.

Buchanan's office declined to comment. Last October, they issued a statement rejecting Thornburgh's allegation.

"It has been and remains the practice of the department to investigate and prosecute individuals who violate federal law without regard to their political affiliation."

In court, Wecht's lawyer Jerry McDevitt argued that the pathologist's use of his office for his private business was "nothing more than routine billing errors," saying that Wecht is charged with sending $3.60 in faxes to private clients from the coroner's office.

McDevitt also said that Wecht never traded cadavers for laboratory space but performed autopsies there through an education program at the school.

The school issued a statement denying the federal charge: "At no time did Carlow trade laboratory space for cadavers."

McDevitt said that he planned to call the school's former president, Sister Grace Ann Geibel, as a witness to explain the school's relationship with Wecht.

In a brief conversation, Geibel told ABCNEWS.com that she invited Wecht to establish an autopsy program at the college but that arrangement did not involve any trading of cadavers. She declined to speak further, referring questions to her attorney. Her attorney, Charles Gibbons, has not returned calls.

The pathologist, who is a prominent figure in the Pittsburgh community, has a strong support group, including Charles E. Evans, the former president of the Pennsylvania Trial Lawyers Association.

Evans, who has known Wecht for more than 35 years, says that he is an outstanding character who ran "one of the best medical examiners offices in the country and is very dedicated to public service."

He would not comment on specific details of the indictment but Evans said that he was surprised charges had been brought in the first place. "It didn't sound like federal business and I found it very odd that charges were brought. The allegations seem to be far off what I expect Dr. Wecht to do."

Wecht's wife, Sigrid, would only say that her husband is confident that the charges will be dismissed. "He's doing OK."