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Tailgate party reunites Wecht, jurors

| Saturday, July 5, 2008

A message on PNC Park's electronic scoreboard welcoming a special group to a recent baseball game went unnoticed by those it was intended to honor.

That's because Dr. Cyril H. Wecht, along with five jurors who voted to acquit the former Allegheny County coroner at his federal public corruption trial, still were tailgating in the parking lot.

The jurors, their families, Wecht and his wife, and a large contingency of his legal team gathered June 27 for the Pirates' series opener with the Tampa Bay Rays. The group of about 30 missed the first-inning message and finally arrived at their Section 108 seats during the top of the second inning.

The journey from strangers to buddies, however, has not been lost on any of them.

"We couldn't talk about the case (during the trial), so we talked about everything else -- work, kids, family," said Kimberly Jones of Slippery Rock, who served as Juror No. 7 during the 10-week trial. "Now it's like a whole other circle of friends."

For the record, each person paid his or her own way. Legal ethicists say there's nothing wrong with defendants and lawyers getting chummy with jurors following a trial.

"It's unusual, of course, but it's not problematic," said John Burkoff, a University of Pittsburgh law professor.

Stephen Gillers, of New York University's law school, sees an intriguing story line.

"If the public sees the jurors with Wecht in and about town, it signals that they think he's a good guy in their view," Gillers said. "In other words, they didn't just have a reasonable doubt, but they actually enjoy his company."

The renowned forensic pathologist said he enjoys their company, too.

"It's phenomenal," said Wecht, 77, of Squirrel Hill. "I've never been in this position. I've been an expert witness in hundreds of cases, but I've never had that kind of relationship with jurors."

Bonds between jurors are similar, though to a lesser degree, to those forged by people who serve in the military or live together in college, said Art Patterson, a jury consultant and social psychologist in State College.

"Absolutely, I do know people make lifelong friends from serving jury duty together," Patterson said.

In 2005, an Illinois couple who met while serving as jurors got married -- by the same judge who presided over the case they decided.

The "Wecht 5" -- Jones, Dawn Cashmere, Bruce Thomas, Linda Chizmar and jury foreman Robert Bible Jr. -- first got together in April after the judge declared a mistrial. They met with Wecht and defense lawyers Jerry McDevitt and Mark Rush at a Marriott hotel conference room in Cranberry. A few weeks later, they had lunch in the food court of Fifth Avenue Place, Downtown, between news interviews.

A group outing planned for Bar Louie in Station Square was canceled, but the crew -- including Wecht and his wife, Sigrid -- attended a 60th-anniversary celebration at Oberg Industries in Freeport, where Thomas works.

They're planning to attend a symposium Wecht is hosting this fall at Duquesne University, and several plan to be in the courtroom when his second trial begins. No date has been set while a federal appeals court considers a number of issues. Wecht's first trial ended after the jury of 11 deadlocked on each of the 41 counts of fraud and theft related to allegations that he used his public office for personal gain.

"Getting to know Dr. Wecht, he's the kindest man," said Cashmere of Cranberry, formerly Juror No. 11. "He's like someone you'd want as a grandfather. It has nothing to do with being star-struck."

McDevitt thanked the jurors for their dedication during the 10-week trial and for finally getting him to a game at PNC Park, where he never had been.

He praised the Wecht 5 for what he considers restoring his faith in the legal system.

"Less in baseball than in the system," McDevitt said.

The Pirates lost 10-5 that night.

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