News organizations seeking appeal, delay in coroner trial

PITTSBURGH - Next month's fraud trial of Cyril Wecht, the well-known pathologist and former Allegheny County coroner, may be delayed pending a probable appeal by newspapers and television stations saying the names of potential jurors should be public information.

David Strassburger, attorney for the Tribune-Review Publishing Co. of Greensburg, said attorneys tomorrow will seek an emergency appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, along with the postponement of Wecht's trial until the appeal is heard.

"We'll be requesting a stay of the trial so we can know the names of the jurors, and appeal that they shouldn't be anonymous," Strassburger said yesterday. "The public needs to verify for themselves whether the jurors selected are impartial."

Wecht, 76, is scheduled for trial Jan. 28 in U.S. District Court on an 84-count indictment charging fraud and theft. He is accused of using his office and staff to aid his multimillion-dollar pathology practice before resigning as coroner in January 2006.

The Tribune-Review, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and WPXI-TV say U.S. District Judge Arthur Schwab did not go far enough when he ruled last week that prosecutors and defense attorneys could have the names and addresses of the final 40 jurors in the 400-member pool. The attorneys will have to file sworn statements that they will not leak the information to reporters.

Schwab's order reversed his November ruling that even the attorneys would not know jurors' names. That sort of move generally is limited to mob or gang prosecutions, which can bring potential threats of jury tampering or harm.

Prosecutors had not requested an anonymous jury but have said it might be necessary to prevent Wecht - known for writing "poison pen" letters to those who disagree with him - from trying to influence jurors.

Wecht's attorneys said the allegation was baseless and an attempt to taint potential jurors. Lawyers for Wecht and the news organizations say a public process will weed out people who may have an ax to grind.

A transparent process will protect jurors and make the trial fair, said Post-Gazette attorney W. Thomas McGough Jr.

"Jurors don't relish the prospect of being out there publicly sitting in judgment," he said. "But you get that in any case, and the harder you make it on the parties to pick a good jury, you take away from the system."

Strassburger said news organizations likely would not publish jurors' names even if they were public. A possible exception would be if a juror was chosen who had a connection to Wecht, or an investigation he conducted or another party in the case. If that did occur, such a report would help the court by preventing a mistrial, Strassburger said.

Wecht has consulted on cases including the deaths of Elvis Presley and JonBenet Ramsey. Since his indictment in January 2006, he has continued to be in demand as a TV pundit and pathologist in other high-profile cases, as well as death investigations in Western Pennsylvania.

His attorney, Jerry McDevitt, and a spokeswoman for the federal prosecutor did not immediately return calls seeking comment.