PITTSBURGH - Celebrity pathologist Cyril Wecht is known as a tough adversary who responds harshly to criticism and as a contrarian who has enjoyed the spotlight ever since he challenged the findings that a lone gunman killed President John F. Kennedy.
So it has been no surprise that Wecht is battling federal fraud charges with the same bare-knuckle style, and in the court of public opinion.
Wecht, 76, served two 10-year stints here as the elected county coroner while also consulting on many high-profile cases around the nation, including the deaths of Elvis Presley and JonBenet Ramsey.
Wecht's services remain in demand, so he has much at stake. Most recently, he has consulted on the death of Anna Nicole Smith's son, Daniel; the accidental strangling of a woman at the Phoenix airport; and the reported suicide of the first black mayor of the town of Westlake, La.
He is scheduled to stand trial next month on charges he used county resources and staff to benefit his private practice from 1996 to 2005. His attorneys say the charges are either false or amount to minor infractions, such as the improper use of fax machines.
Prosecutors have not put a figure on the amount of the fraud. But they said Wecht's private practice grossed nearly $9 million from 1997 through 2004.
Since his 84-count indictment in January, Wecht has waged a bruising legal battle against the charges.
He enlisted former U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh's law firm for his defense, and Thornburgh took his case to Congress, claiming Wecht is being targeted by a Republican U.S. attorney in Pittsburgh because he is a Democrat. The prosecutor denied the accusation, and the judge ruled the claim cannot be raised at trial, in part because Wecht's lawyers had previously argued the charges resulted from Wecht's feud with a Democratic district attorney.
Thornburgh even appeared in Wecht's defense on CNN's "Larry King Live" show, where the pathologist has been a frequent guest.
Wecht's lawyers also tried to get U.S. District Judge Arthur Schwab removed, arguing that he had ignored rules of evidence, antagonized defense attorneys and prejudged the case.
The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the challenge, but did chide the judge for complicating the case by admitting 300,000 pages of documents into evidence over strenuous defense objections.
Wecht beat similar charges in state court in the early 1980s. But before the case was resolved, he had sued prosecutors, a judge and the grand jury that indicted him. Years later, he settled a related lawsuit by repaying the county about $200,000.
His tactics since the indictment reflect a growing belief by some defense lawyers that they need to counter high-profile charges with high-profile defenses, experts say.
"When the prosecutor makes a splash with the announcement of a prosecution, it's perceived by some defense counsel as something that needs to be counteracted," said Philadelphia attorney Thomas Wilkinson Jr., editor of the Pennsylvania Bar Association's ethics handbook.
New York trial attorney Jack Hoffinger, a former ethics professor at Columbia Law School and expert on trial tactics, said waging a high-profile defense must be done carefully.
"You're dealing with prosecutors, who have awesome power," Hoffinger said. "You do your best not to get the prosecutor's nose out of joint.
"If you make an ad hominem attack on a prosecutor, that could come back to haunt you," he said.
Wecht first gained fame in 1964 when he was asked by a forensic scientists' group to review the Warren Commission report on John F. Kennedy's death. He dismissed the single-bullet theory, postulated by Arlen Specter, then a commission staff lawyer and assistant district attorney in Philadelphia, as "nonsense."
His testimony at the trial of Claus von Bulow may have helped acquit the Rhode Island socialite of charges he tried to kill his wife.
In addition to the allegations of misusing county resources, Wecht is accused of trading unclaimed morgue cadavers for private lab space at a local university. He denies those charges. *