Allegedly Political Prosecution Ends in Hung Jury

The House Judiciary Committee has concentrated on three cases as instances of political prosecutions pursued by President Bush’s Justice Department.

Yesterday, one of those three, the trial of Dr. Cyril Wecht, a celebrity forensic pathologist, prominent Pennsylvania Democrat, and former coroner of Allegheny County, ended in a hung jury. After fifty hours of deliberations, the jury was hung and obviously going to stay hung. Prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Pittsburgh leaped at the chance for a re-trial, which has been scheduled for May.

If the views of a juror is any indication, conviction will be difficult. Rev. Stanley Albright, a juror who was excused last week when he became ill, told the AP, “I couldn’t find the crime.”

Albright was the only Wecht juror to be interviewed on the record by the media, because Judge Arthur Schwab asked all jurors not to talk to the media or attorneys from either side after he declared the mistrial. Schwab had the jury on the case seated anonymously and then ensured that the jury left the courtroom before the media or the attorneys could speak to them. It was a series of moves that Wecht’s lawyers, who’ve repeatedly tried to get Schwab removed from the case, say is unprecedented: “Who’s ever heard of anything like this?” A handful of jurors spoke anonymously to The Pittsburgh-Tribune Review, one saying that “a majority of the jury thought he was innocent.”

Dick Thornburgh, who served as attorney general under Pres. George H. W. Bush, testified to the House Judiciary Committee in October that the case brought by U.S. Attorney Mary Buchanan was a raft of “nickel and dime transgressions” trumped up into an indictment.

The government’s case relied on charges that Wecht had used resources from his coroner office for his private practice. Most of the counts of wire fraud against Wecht related to his use of county fax machines ($3.96 worth, his lawyers say) for his personal business. He was also charged with improperly billing the county for gasoline and mileage costs — for a total of $1,778.55, his lawyers say.

Rather than leading to a sprawling two-year federal prosecution, Thornburgh said, Wecht’s transgressions should have been referred to the state ethics commission. So why was the case brought? Wecht is a high-profile Democrat, “an ideal target for a Republican U .S. Attorney trying to curry favor with a Department which demonstrated that if you play by its rules, you will advance,” Thornburgh said, also noting that Buchanan had prosecuted “not one” Republican, while prosecuting Democrats in a “highly visible manner.”

Yesterday, Thornburgh said that he’d appeal personally to Attorney General Michael Mukasey to bring an end to the case: “He knows what our grievances are. I think we can make a persuasive case that this prosecution should be dismissed forthwith.” Thornburgh earlier had worked with then-Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty to ensure that Wecht was allowed to turn himself in: Buchanan, he’s said, wanted to subject Wecht to a “perp walk.”

The House Judiciary Committee has been consistently rebuffed by the Justice Department in its requests for documents from the case — along with documents from the Georgia Thompson case in Wisconsin, which was dramatically overturned on appeal, and former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman’s case, which awaits appeal, Siegelman just having been released from prison.

Update/Correction: This post originally stated that the judge on the case had ordered jurors not to speak to the media or Wecht’s attorneys. In fact, the judge asked, but did not order, the jurors not to speak to all attorneys on the case.

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