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Coroner-DA feud may go to state court

| Wednesday, July 6, 2005, 12:00 p.m.

Allegheny County Coroner Cyril H. Wecht and District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. appear headed for a showdown in a state appeals court over Wecht's authority to conduct open inquests into two deaths after a judge signaled Tuesday that he might rule against Wecht.

Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning, who tried to broker a peace between the two powerful Democratic row officers, said he will rule by the end of the week whether Wecht's office can hold open hearings into the Nov. 9 fatal police shooting in Wilkins of Eugene Aiello, and the Feb. 23 hanging death of John Walker in a Dormont jail cell.

Wecht and Zappala have been battling in court since January over the coroner's ability to conduct inquests, which the law allows in cases where there are questions over how someone died.

Coroner's solicitor Timothy Uhrich again argued before Manning yesterday that state laws written in the 1950s give Wecht the sole authority to decide when an inquest is necessary.

"It's our public duty to hold an inquest when the coroner is not satisfied there are enough facts to determine cause and manner of death," Uhrich said.

Assistant District Attorney Kevin McCarthy argued the inquests are not necessary in these cases.

Ballistics tests showed that Aiello, 31, of Turtle Creek, was shot to death by Forest Hills police Sgt. Ed Hinchey. Zappala ruled that Hinchey was justified in the shooting.

McCarthy also said a videotape from the Dormont police station shows Walker, 43, hanged himself.

Although Manning said that evidence should be enough for Wecht to rule on both cases, Uhrich argued the law also states the coroner should determine if someone is responsible for a death and who that is. Manning has already said he believes that right sits with the district attorney and not the coroner.

Manning in March drafted an agreement -- which was signed by both Wecht and Zappala --outlining when open inquests can occur. Attorneys for both men have returned to court a half-dozen times since then.

"We've been through this and through this, and I'm at a loss," an exasperated Manning said during yesterday's hearing.

Uhrich asked Manning to make his ruling final so he can appeal it to Commonwealth Court.

"I guess that's where you want to go despite all the work we did in March," replied Manning, who oversaw several hours of closed-door meetings in the spring between Wecht and Zappala while the agreement was finalized.

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