The recent trial of Cyril Wecht, the celebrity coroner from Pittsburgh, might not — at first blush — seem tied to the case confronting retiring State Senator Vince Fumo.
Wecht, who rose to prominence for his harsh criticism of the Warren Commission’s findings and who has participated in seemingly every notorious American death investigation since (Elvis, O.J., JonBenet), was accused by the feds in 2005 of exploiting his political office to profit his private consulting business. (Among other allegations, U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan claimed Wecht used government employees to chauffeur his family and traded unclaimed cadavers to a university for lab space.) The case, Wecht’s second public-corruption trial in 30 years (the first ended with an acquittal), was luridly hyped for the two years leading to trial, but turned out to be rather banal. After seven weeks of receipt analysis and other minutiae, the jury deliberated for 54 hours, only to be declared hanged. (A Philadelphia federal appeals panel in May stayed the prosecution’s planned retrial.)
It could be a harbinger for Fumo. Wecht’s lawyers claimed not only that the nature of Wecht’s job and his commitment to it led to some necessary, if innocent, intertwining, but, more forcefully, that Buchanan, a Bush appointee backed by Senator Rick Santorum (and formerly best known for zealously pursuing mail-order bong dealers), was out to take the stalwartly Democratic Wecht down. In light of the administration’s U.S. Attorneys firing scandal, former Republican Pennsylvania governor and U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh joined Wecht’s defense, even trekking to Capitol Hill to disparage the case. Sound familiar? Fumo’s attorneys have said Philadelphia’s U.S. Attorney, Patrick L. Meehan — another Bush appointee — and his charges against Fumo “reek of malice,” and that the indictment was “born of political ambition.”
Of course, the road confronting Fumo appears rockier. For one thing, his alleged excesses are breathtakingly excessive; Meehan claims Fumo staffed his alpaca farm with state employees and spent taxpayer dollars to hire a private detective to spy on his ex-wife, ex-girlfriends … and Governor Rendell. But that may not matter much when the first “All rise” echoes inside Philly’s federal courthouse in September. Columbia University Law School professor Dan Richman says the new “staple” defense offered by politician defendants — that the charges against them are politically motivated — has gained traction in the era of George W. What’s more, he says, “In a high-profile case against a hometown favorite, an acquittal can be achieved simply by virtue of the defendant’s popularity”—an issue likely in play for Wecht, whose comings and goings, like Fumo’s, are reported in local gossip columns.
After all, the fact that Fumo had been heavily favored to win reelection despite the allegations (before he suffered his heart attack and dropped out) says something powerful about the potential jury pool’s feelings toward the 30-year Senator. All of which might turn the case of United States of America v. Vincent Fumo into United States of America v. Cyril Wecht, part deux.