Thursday, February 07, 2008

Cyril Wecht : Modern -Day "Body Snatcher"?

Pittsburgh has had its share of national figure throughout the years. Most of them have been sports figures, but occasionally someone unrelated to athletics will slip through into wider acclaim. Such is the case with Cyril Wecht, the former Allegheny County Coroner. Wecht first gained widespread prominence as a forensic pathologist when he publicly disputed the findings of the Warren Commission in the wake of the John F. Kennedy assassination. Wecht has served on a number of high-profile cases throughout the last few decades, including examinations into the deaths of Robert F. Kennedy, Sharon Tate, Elvis Presley, JonBenet Ramsey, Vincent Foster, Laci Peterson, Ana Nicole Smith and the Branch Davidians at Waco. Because of this high profile work, Wecht has appeared on television on countless occasions.

In fact Wecht seems to be drawn to the media like a moth is attracted to a bug zapper. Ultimately this may prove to be his "tragic flaw". He is so outspoken that he has developed some very high-profile enemies, and they are coming after him with a vengeance. Still, during his initial tenure as County Coroner (from 1970-1980), he was able to weather plenty of controversy. He was first accused of depositing autopsy fees into a private account in 1979. While he beat that charge in criminal court, he ended up responsible for paying the County $200,000 in a civil settlement. In the 80's the pathologist got himself involved in party politics, and experienced new rounds of criticism and failure. Still Wecht was once again able to assume the County Coroner position, and served in that capacity from 1995 until 2006.

Unfortunately for the soon-to-be-former-coroner, a grand jury indicted him on corruption charges in January of 1996. It is alleged that he used office personnel and property for his own personal gain. Specifically he is accused of instructing all Coroner's Office employees to redirect inquiries about personal autopsy services to his private firm. More damning is the suggestion that Wecht traded bodies he acquired through his public office and traded them for the use of resources and facilities at local Carlow College. Apparently he utilized those gains to further his private operations. When these indictments first came down, Wecht resigned from the Coroner's Office, and his long-held position was officially eliminated. He is currently in trial facing these charges.

His notoriety is really nothing new. The ghoulish nature of his job has made his historical counterparts the target of rumor, innuendo and suspicion. In 1827 the Burke and Hare murders in Edinburgh, Scotland stoked the worst fears of the peasantry and cast a pall over medical science. These two individuals had assumed the task of supplying cadavers to the local medical school for studies in anatomy. There was a need for this in the United Kingdom because of a law that stated that only executed criminals could be dissected. Naturally greed is a strong motivating factor, and when the supply of fresh bodies was exhausted at the graveyard- Burke and Hare decided to start producing their own corpses by killing people.

Val Lewton's film production of the Body Snatcher (1945) examined the phenomena of "resurrectionists" (grave-robbers) and their relation to the medical profession. Robert Wise directed the movie, and its cast included Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. It's based on the Robert Louis Stevenson book of the same name, and presents a balanced look at the type of gruesome compromises that doctors had to engage in before society realized the value of expanded access to dead people. It's an atmospheric flick with skillful screen-writing, great performances and memorable direction. And of course its extremely timely in conjunction with the Wecht trial. While Wecht is not likely to assume the role of bogeyman to a new generation of children, his purported crimes have resonated with a population understandably wary of folks who play with dead things.

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