Cyril Wecht

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Cyril Wecht
Allegheny County Medical Examiner
In office
December 29, 2005[1] – January 20, 2006[2]
Preceded by Himself as Coroner
Succeeded by Abdulrezak Shakir (Acting)[a]
Allegheny County Coroner
In office
January 1, 1996 – December 29, 2005
Preceded by F. James Gregis (Acting)[b]
Succeeded by Himself as Medical Examiner
In office
January 2, 1970[3] – January 9, 1980
Preceded by Ralph Stalter
Succeeded by Joshua Perper (Acting)[c]
Member of the Allegheny County
Board of Commissioners
In office
January 7, 1980 – January 2, 1984[4]
Preceded by Jim Flaherty
Succeeded by Pete Flaherty
Chairperson of the
Allegheny County Democratic Party
In office
June 1, 1978[5] – May 30, 1984[6]
Preceded by Eugene Coon
Succeeded by Ed Stevens
Personal details
Born Cyril Harrison Wecht
(1931-03-20) March 20, 1931 (age 90)
Dunkard Township, Pennsylvania
Political party Democratic
Alma mater University of Pittsburgh (B.S.), (M.D.), (LLB)
University of Maryland School of Law (J.D.)
Occupation Forensic pathologist
a.^ Shakir held the title of Acting Medical Examiner while a national search was undertaken to find a permanent successor to Wecht.[7] In December of 2006, Karl Williams was formally appointed Medical Examiner.[8]
b.^ Gregis held the title of Acting Coroner from the date of Joshua Perper's resignation in July of 1994, until Wecht was elected to permanently fill the vancancy.[9]
c.^ Perper held the title of Acting Coroner from the date of Wecht's resignation, until the State Supreme Court upheld Dr. Sanford Edberg's appointment to the office on March 2, 1981.

Cyril Harrison Wecht (born March 20, 1931) is an American forensic pathologist. He has been a consultant in numerous high-profile cases, but is perhaps best known for his criticism of the Warren Commission's findings concerning the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

He has been the president of both the American Academy of Forensic Science and the American College of Legal Medicine, and currently heads the board of trustees of the American Board of Legal Medicine. He served as County Commissioner and Allegheny County Coroner & Medical Examiner serving metro Pittsburgh.


Wecht was born to Jewish immigrant parents in a tiny mining village in Dunkard Township, Pennsylvania called Bobtown. His father, Nathan Wecht, was a Lithuanian born storekeeper; his Ukrainian born mother Fannie Rubenstein was a homemaker and helped out in the store. When Wecht was young, Nathan moved the family to the Hill District neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and opened a neighborhood grocery store. He attended and graduated from the now closed Fifth Avenue High School in Pittsburgh.[10]

Wecht had musical leanings and was concertmaster of the University of Pittsburgh Orchestra[11] during his undergraduate years. He earned a B.S. from the University of Pittsburgh in 1952, an M.D. degree from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine in 1956, an LL.B. from the University of Pittsburgh School of Law in 1962,[12] and a J.D. degree from the University of Maryland School of Law.[citation needed]

After serving in the United States Air Force, he became a forensic pathologist. He served on the staff of St. Francis Hospital in Pittsburgh before becoming Deputy Coroner of Allegheny County in 1965. Four years later he was elected coroner. Wecht served as coroner from 1970 to 1980, and again from 1996 to 2006.[citation needed]

Forensics career

Cyril, obviously, is a national figure,
international figure, in many ways
so we’re lucky to have someone of
his stature here in Allegheny County.

Rich Fitzgerald[13]

Wecht became famous appearing on television and consulting on deaths with a high media profile. Some of the cases include; Robert F. Kennedy, Sharon Tate, Brian Jones, The Symbionese Liberation Army shootout, John F. Kennedy, The Legionnaires’ Disease panic, Elvis Presley, JonBenét Ramsey, Dr. Herman Tarnower (the Scarsdale diet guru), Danielle van Dam, Sunny von Bülow, the Branch Davidian incident, Vincent Foster, Laci Peterson and most recently Daniel and Anna Nicole Smith. During his career, Wecht performed more than 14,000 autopsies. He is a clinical professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and an adjunct professor of law at Duquesne University.

Wecht is both outspoken and controversial. In 1979, Wecht examined Elvis Presley's medical records for 20/20 and disputed earlier autopsy results suggesting Presley may have had cardiovascular disease. Wecht argued Presley died from a lethal drug cocktail overdose.[14] In his book Who Killed JonBenet Ramsey?, he argues that the death was likely an accidental result of a sex "game" committed by her father.[14]

Cyril H. Wecht and Pathology Associates

Since 1962, Wecht has had a private practice. He has served as a medical-legal and forensic pathology consultant in both civil and criminal cases. Wecht is consulted by both plaintiffs' and defense attorneys in civil cases, and by both prosecutors and defense attorneys in criminal cases in jurisdictions throughout the United States and abroad.

His forensic consultant engagements include:

  • for the Los Angeles County Coroner's Office in regard to the 1968 Robert F. Kennedy assassination, the 1969 Sharon Tate/LaBianca cases, and the 1974 Symbionese Liberation Army Deaths;
  • for the Health Hospital, Panama Canal Zone as a member of the Special Expert Panel on American Legionnaires’ Disease (Department of Health, Education and Welfare, Centers for Disease Control)
  • for the ABC network television show 20/20 in regard to the John F. Kennedy assassination (in 1976) and the death of Elvis Presley
  • U.S. House of Representatives Select Committee on Assassinations, Forensic Pathology Panel
  • for the 1991 film JFK
  • the expert on the Jeffrey Locker case.[15]

JFK assassination

In 1965 Wecht presented a paper critiquing the Warren Commission to the meeting of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences.[16] In 1972 Wecht was the first civilian ever given permission to examine the Kennedy assassination evidence. It was Wecht who first discovered that Kennedy’s brain, and all related data in the killing, had gone missing.[17] In 1978 he testified before the House Select Committee on Assassinations as the lone dissenter on a nine-member forensic pathology panel re-examining the assassination of John F. Kennedy, which had concurred with the Warren Commission conclusions and single bullet theory. Out of the four official examinations into the Kennedy Assassination, Wecht is the only forensic pathologist who has disagreed with the conclusion that both the single bullet theory and Kennedy’s head wounds are mutually consistent.[18][19][20]

Investigation into the death of Daniel Smith

Wecht was hired by Callenders and Co, a Bahamian law firm, to do an independent autopsy on the body of Daniel Smith, the son of Anna Nicole Smith who died while visiting his mother in the Bahamas.[21] Wecht attested that Daniel Smith died as a result of the interaction of methadone, sertraline (Zoloft) and escitalopram (Lexapro).[22]

The Cyril H. Wecht Institute of Forensic Science and Law

In the fall of 2000, the Duquesne University School of Law established the Cyril H. Wecht Institute of Forensic Science and Law. The Institute offers graduate degree and professional certificate programs in forensic science to a diverse group of students spanning the disciplines of law, nursing, law enforcement, pharmacy, the health sciences, business, the environmental sciences and psychology. The Institute collaborates with the Duquesne University's schools of Law, Nursing, Natural and Environmental Sciences, Business, Pharmacy, and Liberal Arts, as well as with other academic institutions.


Wecht has written numerous books, including[citation needed]:

  • From Crime Scene to Courtroom (2011)
  • Investigation of Police Related Deaths (2011)
  • Forensic Science and Law (2006)
  • Tales from the Morgue (2005)
  • Forensic Aspects of Chemical and Biological Terrorism (2004)
  • Mortal Evidence (2003)
  • Into EVIDENCE: Truth, Lies and Unresolved Mysteries in the Murder of JFK
  • November 22, 1963: A Reference Guide to the JFK Assassination
  • Grave Secrets: A Leading Forensic Expert Reveals the Startling Truth about O.J. Simpson, David Koresh, Vincent Foster, and Other Sensational Cases
  • Who Killed JonBenet Ramsey?
  • A Question of Murder
  • Cause of Death (1993)
  • Legal Medicine (1985)
  • Exploring the Medical Malpractice Dilemma (1972)

Political career

Early years (1965–1985)

In 1965, Wecht became Deputy Coroner of Allegheny County. Four years later he was elected Coroner of Allegheny County. Wecht served as coroner from 1970 to 1980. His initial departure from the office of Coroner was not met without controversy. Wecht did not resign as Coroner until January 9, two days after his swearing-in as Commissioner, as the law did not prohibit him from holding both the offices of Coroner and Commissioner.[23] He resigned under pressure from a variety of sources, including his predecessor as Coroner, Dr. Ralph Stalter, a Republican, and the administration of Governor Dick Thornburgh, also a Republican.[24] He initially recommended that Dr. Joshua Perper succeed him, and indeed Perper held the title of Acting Coroner until Thornburgh appointed Dr. Sanford Edburg to succeed Wecht. While Perper initially rejected the appointment as unconstitutional, the State Supreme Court upheld Thornburgh's right to appoint Edberg, who duly took over the office of Coroner on March 2, 1981.[25]

In 1978, he was elected chairman of the Allegheny County Democratic Party. One year later, Wecht was elected to the Allegheny County Board of Commissioners. In 1982, he was the Democratic party's nominee to oppose freshman Senator John Heinz in bid for a second term; Heinz won the election with 59 percent of the vote.

Wecht and fellow Democratic County Commissioner Tom Foerster were frequently at odds, and battled for control of the Democratic Party in Allegheny County, which Wecht chaired. Although the Democratic Committee rejected Foerster and endorsed Wecht for re-election as commissioner in 1983, the committee paired him with Sheriff Gene Coon, with whom he also had a longstanding political feud.[citation needed] Ultimately Foerster teamed up with former Pittsburgh Mayor Pete Flaherty, and the two defeated Wecht and Coon in the primary election for the two Democratic nominations. Wecht then lost the chairmanship of the county's Democratic Party in 1984 to Foerster's hand-picked candidate, Scott Township Tax Collector Ed Stevens. Wecht then sought to become chair of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party that same year, but was defeated by Ed Mezvinsky, a former Congressman from Iowa.[citation needed]

Later years (1995–2006)

In 1995, Wecht, after 12 years out of public life, was again elected as Allegheny County's Coroner. In 1999, he ran for the newly created position of Allegheny County Chief Executive, defeating one-term minority County Commissioner Mike Dawida in the Democratic primary, but losing to prominent Republican businessman Jim Roddey in his first bid for elective public office.

While serving as the county’s coroner, Wecht continued to operate a private forensic consulting business on the side known as Wecht Pathology Associates.[14] Wecht Pathology Associates charges clients for examining cases, conducting autopsies, and testifying in civil and criminal trials. In his official capacity as county coroner, Wecht continued to squabble with DA Zappala, often over deaths that took place during encounters with police.[14]

In the case that is the precursor to Wecht's federal prosecution, US vs. Wecht, Wecht ruled that Charles Dixon had been suffocated through positional asphyxiation during a 2002 encounter with police officers from Mount Oliver and Pittsburgh. When Wecht ruled the death of Dixon a homicide, DA Zappala refused to press charges against the officers. In response, Wecht, acting in his private capacity as an employee of Wecht Pathology Associates, wrote a medical opinion outlining the officers' alleged role in Dixon’s death which was utilized by Dixon's family in a civil suit against the county.[14]

In response to Wecht's testimony in the Dixon case, Zappala accused Wecht of violating the federal Hobbs Act, which prohibits public officials from using their offices for private gain. In early 2005, Zappala launched an investigation into whether Wecht had been using county resources to carry out private work — allegations similar to those Wecht had faced before. By spring of 2005, FBI agents were seizing documents in Wecht's private and county offices.[14]

Wecht continued to serve as Coroner until the position was eliminated in 2006. County Executive Dan Onorato named him as the county's first appointed Medical Examiner in 2006. By January 2006, a federal grand jury had indicted Wecht on 84 criminal counts, prompting Wecht to step down from his county post per an agreement he made when the investigation became public in 2004 that if indicted he would resign as county coroner.[14]

Court cases

Allegheny County criminal trial (1979–1981)

Wecht's tenure as Allegheny County Coroner was not without controversy. While he was responsible for significant upgrades in the professionalism and technology of the coroner's office during his service in that office from 1970 to 1980, making the Allegheny County Coroner's office one of the best in the nation, Wecht's political career proved controversial due to his opinionated nature and as he put it his unwillingness to "run away from a fight.”[14]

In 1979 Wecht was accused of performing autopsies for other counties at the county morgue and depositing the fees from these autopsies in his private business's bank account. Wecht responded that the funds in question had been used solely to upgrade the office and staff.[26]

After a long investigation, Wecht was indicted on multiple criminal counts that charged Wecht with personally profiting from work at the coroner's office. Wecht allegedly transacted approximately $400,000 of his private business work using county facilities and the county morgue.[14][26] In the spring of 1981, the six-week-long criminal trial began. All charges were dismissed except for one, theft of services. Wecht was acquitted on the remaining charge.[14][26]

The original judge at trial was censured by a judge's panel and some findings vacated due to judicial misconduct.[27] Wecht's attorneys alleged that he was a victim of a political conspiracy.[28]

Allegheny County civil trial

Although Wecht was acquitted in the criminal case, the County Controller levied a civil surcharge of $390,000 against him for mingling private and public work at the morgue. In 1983, a civil court ruled that Wecht owed the county $172,410. On appeal, the original award to the county was increased to $250,000. In 1992, the county and Wecht reached a settlement resulting in Wecht having to repay the county $200,000.[14][26]

Federal criminal trial

On January 28, 2008, a federal trial against Wecht began, on charges of public corruption. Roughly two weeks prior to the start of the trial proceedings, the prosecution sought to withdraw 43 of the 84 counts against Wecht; judge Arthur J. Schwab dismissed those charges with prejudice.[29] Following trial the jury could not reach agreement on the remaining counts, and the judge declared a mistrial. The prosecution immediately announced that they planned to retry Wecht.[30]

Public concerns were raised about the motivation and conduct of the prosecution before and after the trial.[31][32] Speculation arose that the prosecution of Wecht was politically motivated. Attorney General and Governor of Pennsylvania Dick Thornburgh, a defense lawyer for Wecht, testified before a house panel investigating the US Attorneys' Firing Scandal that Wecht was targeted politically.[33][34]

Congressmen Mike Doyle (whose district includes Pittsburgh) and John Conyers questioned the prosecution's tactics in the aftermath of the first trial and instituted Congressional hearings on the matter.[35] Op-eds in The Pittsburgh Post Gazette and the Pittsburgh Tribune Review called for dismissal of the proposed re-trial.[36] On April 12, 2008, 33 prominent leaders in the Pittsburgh community sent a letter to Attorney General Michael Mukasey and US Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan requesting that the prosecution dismiss the indictment against Wecht. Shortly after the press release of this letter, Senator Arlen Specter publicly recommended against a retrial for Wecht.[37] Former jurors stated to the press that they believed that the prosecution had been politically motivated.[38]

On May 5, 2008, the Department of Justice's Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) revealed that it initiated an investigation into the Wecht prosecution due to claims that the case was a "selective prosecution".[39]

On May 14, 2009, a new trial judge in the retrial excluded most of the evidence against Wecht because it was seized under an illegal and improperly executed search warrant.[40] On June 2, 2009, Buchanan announced that her office would file a motion to dismiss all charges against Wecht.[41]

In popular media

Wecht was portrayed by Albert Brooks in the 2015 film Concussion. In the film, Wecht was a staunch supporter of Bennet Omalu's efforts to expose the link between concussions and football. It implies that Wecht's prosecution was launched at the behest of the National Football League (NFL) in an effort to put pressure on Omalu to back down; however, in real life, Wecht was arrested three months before Omalu published his first paper on the subject.[42]


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  19. Vincent Bugliosi, Reclaiming History, p. 863
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Further reading

External links

Political offices
Preceded by
As County Coroner
Allegheny County Medical Examiner
Succeeded by
Abdulrezak Shakir1
Preceded by
F. James Gregis2
Allegheny County Coroner
Succeeded by
Office Eliminated
Preceded by
Jim Flaherty
Member of the Allegheny County Board of Commissioners
Succeeded by
Pete Flaherty
Preceded by
Ralph Stalter
Allegheny County Coroner
Succeeded by
Joshua Perper3
Party political offices
Preceded by
Bill Green
Democratic nominee for U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania
(Class 1)

Succeeded by
Joe Vignola
Preceded by
Eugene Coon
Chairperson of the Allegheny County Democratic Party
Succeeded by
Ed Stevens
Notes and references
1. Shakir held the title of Acting Medical Examiner while a national search was undertaken to find a permanent successor to Wecht. In December of 2006, Karl Williams was formally appointed Medical Examiner.
2. Gregis held the title of Acting Coroner from the date of Joshua Perper's resignation in July of 1994, until Wecht was elected to permanently fill the vancancy.
3. Perper held the title of Acting Coroner from the date of Wecht's resignation, until the State Supreme Court upheld Dr. Sanford Edberg's appointment to the office on March 2, 1981