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Prosecution's conduct in Wecht case labeled 'troubling'

Jason Cato
| Saturday, April 12, 2008

Two Democratic congressmen expressed concern Friday over reports the FBI is contacting jurors who deadlocked in the public corruption trial of former Allegheny County Coroner Cyril H. Wecht.

"I am deeply troubled by reports of FBI agents contacting former jurors who failed to convict Dr. Wecht," said Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee. "Whether reckless or intended, it is simply common sense that such contacts can have a chilling effect on future juries in this and other cases.

"When added to the troubling conduct of this prosecution, there is the appearance of a win-at-all-costs mentality."

The committee is investigating whether the prosecutions of Wecht, whose 10-week trial ended Monday in a hung jury, and two other prominent Democrats were politically motivated.

U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan has denied politics played any role in prosecuting Wecht.

U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle of Forest Hills said the FBI interviews "would be intimidating to just about anyone."

Buchanan's office announced yesterday it would retry Wecht, 77, of Squirrel Hill on all 41 counts of fraud and theft in connection with accusations he used his county office for personal gain. Wecht has denied any wrongdoing.

The Tribune-Review reported yesterday that two jurors said they were contacted by FBI agents seeking to set up meetings with prosecutors to discuss the case and why they deadlocked. The two men, who asked to remain anonymous, said the calls were troubling.

Buchanan's office said it is commonplace for prosecutors and investigators to meet with jurors following a trial. Wecht's lawyers and others said it's unusual to use FBI agents to make the appointments.

Doyle said he intends to contact U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey about the tactic.

Wecht lawyer Richard Thornburgh, who served as U.S. attorney general under Ronald Reagan, said this week that he has asked Mukasey's office to intervene.

In October, Thornburgh told the House Judiciary Committee that he believes the case was driven by politics. He said he could see no other reason why Buchanan, a Republican appointed by President Bush, would bring such "trivial" charges against Wecht, a prominent Democrat.

Jurors heard from 44 government witnesses over seven weeks of testimony, which began Jan. 28. The defense presented no witnesses.

U.S. District Judge Arthur J. Schwab declared a mistrial when jurors said they could not unanimously agree on any of the counts. The jury deliberated 11 days.

Schwab scheduled a second trial to begin May 27, but Wecht's lawyers want that date postponed. They are seeking Schwab's removal from the case.

Wecht defense attorney Jerry McDevitt said he's cautiously optimistic prosecutors ultimately will drop all charges.

"The facts haven't changed, and the facts will never change," McDevitt said. "There is a point at which it becomes mean-spirited."

Several jurors have told the Tribune-Review a majority favored acquittal. The jury foreman said he came to view the case as being politically motivated and wished prosecutors would have talked to jurors before announcing their decision to seek a new trial.

Doyle said he, too, is concerned a retrial was announced before anyone spoke to jurors.

"I am very reluctant to intervene in a judicial proceeding -- and like most people have watched quietly as the government's case against Cyril Wecht was made -- but after seeing news reports from jurors, I have serious concerns about the appropriateness of a retrial," Doyle said.

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