Full Court Press | Opinion | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

As our local US Attorney, Mary Beth Buchanan, continues her jihad against online smut merchants, bong dealers, and former coroner Cyril Wecht, you've probably wondered, "Doesn't she know how stupid everyone thinks all this stuff is?"

Judging from a somewhat creepy government filing last year, the answer is "yes." In fact, not only does she know what's being said -- she and her agents have been recording it. And not only do they not care about the massive public disapproval ... they're citing that as a reason to press even harder for a conviction.

You may recall that a federal corruption case against Wecht ended in a mistrial last year. Almost everyone outside the courtroom -- and a few of the jurors inside it -- said they hoped the case would be dropped. Instead, Buchanan is seeking to hold a new trial to Erie instead ... because the first trial was so unpopular.

In a filing made last year, the government quotes numerous media accounts in which people call the case a farce. Over 20 pages, the filing cites excerpts from print articles as well as transcripts from interviews on talk radio and local cable shows like Nighttalk. It's both sad and slightly disturbing to realize that some government employee sat there taping and transcribing this stuff. (On the bright side -- at least we know someone does still watch Nighttalk!)

It's all there: Wecht's ebullient remarks about his own popularity ("I wish this were an election year"); interviews with former jurors ("I think they are going after the man and for all the wrong reasons."); editorials from the Tribune-Review (the feds would be "damn fools' to retry the case). And so much more!

And this is all evidence to support a new trial. Because, see, it proves that the "publicity surrounding this case, much of it now harshly critical of the government [has made it] impossible to select a fair, unbiased, untainted jury" from the immediate area.

Usually, it's the defense who seeks to move a trial. That's because usually, prosecutors have no trouble winning in the court of public opinion -- starting with the famous "perp walk" in front of local TV news cameras. As Wecht's attorneys pointed out in a filing of their own, while Buchanan "loudly protests media coverage," she also announced the 84 charges filed against Wecht at a news conference.

Most of those charges were dropped shortly before trial -- a move which Buchanan did not, strangely enough, hold a press conference to announce. As the defense points out, Buchanan "had no problem with the Pittsburgh venue as long as the media parroted [the prosecution's] spoon-fed message." It's really only the coverage after the mistrial that she objects to.

In fact, to some extent, Buchanan has put the media on trial. Clearly, the problem isn't that Wecht's attorneys say things like, "I think [retrying Wecht] is wrong and I think the public senses it's wrong." (What else are they going to say?) The problem is that reporters listened. For once, they treated the defendant as if his accusations deserved equal time. The playing field is level, for a change. Which is why Buchanan wants to find another arena, where people are more likely to accept the government's version of events.

But as laughable as this all is, I'm worried about the precedent that would be set if Buchanan doesn't get her way. Like I said: Usually it's the defense that seeks a new venue. If judges ignore the publicity in this case, might that make it harder for the next defendant targeted by an ambitious prosecutor's PR campaign? And what are the odds that defendant will have Wecht's celebrity status and high-powered attorneys?

So how about this: I'll support a new trial for Wecht if Buchanan promises to stop her own headline-chasing approach to justice ... and if she encourages police and prosecutors to avoid similar stunts that gin up public opinion against a defendant.

In fact, as a gesture of good will, I invite Ms. Buchanan to cite this column in future pleadings. She can use it to show how the media is biased against the feds. If it'll help, I'll add that I can't wait until the Obama administration replaces her, and we have a US Attorney that doesn't embarrass the entire western half of Pennsylvania.

No need to thank me.

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