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Judge tosses evidence in remaining Wecht corruption charges

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Thursday, May 14, 2009

A federal judge today crippled the government's chances of retrying Dr. Cyril H. Wecht on public corruption charges.

U.S. District Judge Sean J. McLaughlin of Erie suppressed the evidence collected by FBI agents that backed up the remaining 14 fraud and theft charges against Wecht, who is accused of using his public office while Allegheny County coroner for private gain. McLaughlin excluded 29 boxes of evidence collected in 2005 from Wecht's private office and all evidence gleened from a laptop used by one of his secretaries, stating the warrants were unconstitutional.

"Our office will review the court's opinion and determine the appropriate course of action," said Margaret Philbin, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office.

Wecht's lawyers planned a news conference for this evening. They asked McLaughlin to dismiss the case or limit the evidence in December.

A grand jury indicted Wecht, 78, of Squirrel Hill in January 2006 on 84 counts of fraud and theft, but prosecutors later dropped more than half the charges.

Following a trial, U.S. District Judge Arthur J. Schwab declared a mistrial in April 2008 after jurors failed to reach a verdict on any of the remaining 41 counts. The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals later removed Schwab, whom Wecht's lawyers accused of being biased in favor of the government.

Prosecutors again reduced the number of charges to 14 in anticipation of a second trial.

"My ruling, which involves suppressing a substantial portion of the government's evidence, is not undertaken lightly," McLaughlin wrote. "These rulings are grounded in well-established 4th Amendment principles which serve as a bulwark against unwarranted governmental intrusion into the private affairs of every citizen, not just this defendant. The importance of these principles transcends this particular case."

The warrant used by FBI agents at Wecht's office limited the search to approximately 20 boxes containing private autopsy files for work prosecutors say was done by county employees. They contend the boxes were removed from the coroner's office shortly before the search.

McLaughlin said the search warrant failed to limit the search to anything other than private autopsy files, not specifically those removed from the coroner's office.

"It is important to recognize that the location to be searched — i.e., the defendant's private pathology business office — is the very place where one might naturally expect to find an abundance of boxes containing private autopsy files," McLaughlin wrote.

He called the warrant to search the laptop "patently overbroad."

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