When Cyril Wecht’s family gathers for their weekly Sunday dinners, it is always a lively atmosphere, but this past Sunday, they had a special reason to rejoice: in addition to celebrating his daughter and son-in-law’s anniversary, the U.S. Attorney’s office announced last week it was dropping all charges in the public corruption case against the forensic pathologist, ending a four-year ordeal.
The celebration, however, will be bittersweet, said Wecht’s son, Ben. “I wouldn’t call it a victory celebration by any means because of the huge toll this has taken on my parents. To have to go through this at this time of their lives has taken a huge emotional toll and beyond that, the financial aspects of defending yourself are just overwhelming.”
The U.S. Attorney’s office filed 84 counts of corruption charges against Wecht in January 2006, although he said he became aware of possible charges as early as the fall of 2004. After protracted litigation resulting in a deadlocked jury, the U.S. Attorney’s office dropped the case entirely after a federal judge tossed out evidence in the remaining fraud charges, which had been whittled down to 14.
“Obviously we were elated but it had been going on for so long,” Wecht said. “My feelings about this whole business are so deep and so widespread. In a way, perhaps, it is a bitter irony that it served to dampen the degree of exhilaration that one would feel and should rightfully and understandably feel with news of this nature. Needless to say, we’re delighted to have it over and done with.”
Wecht said that his family, all of whom live in Pittsburgh, helped him throughout the ordeal.
“That is what sustained me; the family and everybody being here, a great wife, kids and their spouses, wonderful lawyers, the opportunity to be able to pursue my professional practice and the people who stuck with me. That’s what carried me through.” Plus, Wecht said he always had his “belief, strength and faith.”
Ben Wecht echoed his father’s sentiment. “In times of adversity, one definitely looks to that which provides the most security, comfort and sense of identity, and our family’s a big, big part of that. We’re always literally here for each other, which provides a lot of emotional sustenance and moral courage.”
A member of Tree of Life Congregation in Squirrel Hill, Wecht’s ties with the Jewish community can be traced back to his high school days when he was involved with the United Jewish Federation. He has also served on the young adult board of Jewish Family & Children’s Service and on the Jewish Community Center Relations Council.
Wecht said he was touched by the amount of encouragement he received from the Pittsburgh community, many of whom would honk their horns in support of him outside the courtroom or stop and shake his hand while he was walking back to his office after a day in court. After the charges were dismissed, the support continued.
“I haven’t kept count, but I would say, conservatively, I have received well over 300 calls, letters, e-mails from people I don’t know, in foreign countries as well as around the country, and of course, from friends and acquaintances,” he said.
He cites some well-known supporters including attorney Alan Dershowitz, former U.S. Attorney Harry Litman, Sen. Arlen Specter, Elsie Hillman, former Congresswoman Melissa Hart, former Chief Executive of Allegheny County Jim Roddey and Archbishop Donald Wuerl.
Wecht, who inherited nothing from his parents and essentially put himself through school on scholarships, said the trial has bankrupted him.
“The cost has been great,” Wecht said. “It’s cost me millions and I owe more millions. And all that will have to be dealt with in the future. Everything we’ve worked for is essentially gone.”
Whether or not the expenses can be recouped remains to be seen, said Ben.
Despite the favorable outcome to Wecht, his faith in the legal system has been shattered.
“I never had any beginning understanding of the power of the federal government as exerted by a U.S. Attorney’s office as unlimited, unfettered, unchallenged. That is in no way an exaggeration. It was my misfortune to have become the victim of the perfect storm.”
Nonetheless, he is effusive in his praise of his attorneys, particularly Jerry McDevitt of K&L Gates, as well as everyone at the firm who sacrificed their time to help him.
During the legal proceedings, it was business as usual. Wecht continued consulting, testifying, presenting papers at conventions, making television appearances and even releasing his seventh book this past January.
Wecht, who is 78, plans to put all of this behind him simply by forging ahead.
“It’s simple and concise: I continue. I am going to continue to do everything: consulting, lecturing, teaching, writing. That part is easily and quickly answered. The family, obviously, continues, as tight as ever. We are fortunate; the kids and grandchildren are close.”
Ben calls his father a “multitasker” and has no doubt that he will bounce back.
“He’s got more energy than men half his age. He’s just an incredibly hard worker. Work is just part of who he is. He’ll just keep doing that as long as he can. It’s amazing. He just kept plugging away all through it. I think it says a lot about the kind of person he is. I hope that he’ll have many more productive years ahead of him.”
Wecht hopes his legacy will be his contributions to the fields of law, medicine and forensic science and to the criminal and civil justice system.
“My friends all know what a tight family we have and how close we are,” Wecht said. “I don’t have to prove anything to them; I know what they think of me as a father, grandfather and husband.”
As for any silver linings or life lessons garnered from being on trial, Wecht said, “I like to believe I think I have a bit of a reputation for standing up for what I believe in; I’ve paid dearly for this.”
But, he added, “That which does not destroy me makes me stronger. I would not recommend this kind of ordeal for anyone; it’s depleting in every way, but it does strengthen you in a way and makes you feel that you have courage and fortitude.”
(Hilary Daninhirsch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)