Over My Dead Body | Vox Pop | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Over My Dead Body

DA and coroner are in a death match



These two bastards mean business. The feud between Coroner Cyril Wecht and District Attorney Steve Zappala will not end pretty, and it's getting uglier by the day. No one can seem to tell me what was the absolute last straw that pissed off Steve, but there's a burr in his butt the size of Cyril's ego.



Most district attorneys don't have a nationally known pain in the ass coming to conclusions that may not agree with the DA's. For example: A black guy at a party in Mount Oliver gets drunk and rowdy, a bunch of white cops sit on him in an apparent attempt to restrain him, and he dies. Criminal charges seem possible, and Dr. Wecht concluded they should be filed in the Charles Dixon case. But Zappala hasn't filed charges against any of the cops.


Wecht pointed out to me that just because he concluded criminal charges ought to be brought, it doesn't mean the cops are guilty of murder. Perhaps it was in self-defense. He says he has to determine cause and manner of death, and it is the "manner" part of his job which sometimes requires him to point fingers. Wecht figures he's been at this for a while and demonstrates extreme competence. But Zappala is seeking a court ruling to limit or eliminate Wecht's ability to conduct inquests -- the hearings in which the coroner's office examines testimony and evidence and recommends whether to file criminal charges.


I don't know what, if anything, Zappala knows about the Dixon case that the rest of us don't. But if I were Zappala, I'd be thinking, "That know-it-all blabbermouth is making me look bad."


Is Steve a control freak? He says there's a backlog of crime-lab work and blames Cyril for being too busy with outside autopsies and such. He'd like to wrest control of the crime lab from the good doctor. Wecht contends he never uses the Allegheny lab for outside work, and the backlog is simply because his office needs more people and resources. He points to a Bureau of Justice study blaming outdated facilities and an employee shortage for a backlog at crime labs nationally.


Wecht says his inquests are a useful tool especially when cases are inflammatory, controversial, and involve difficult issues like cops vs. minorities. Says Wecht: "It's a marvelous socio-political forum for catharsis."


Well la-de-freakin'-da, Zappala must be thinking.


Wecht, says Zappala, "doesn't have any investigative capabilities. He doesn't follow the rules of evidence. 'Open inquest' is not defined in any statute. ... You can do it however you want. This system is an anachronism."


Zappala says the open inquests are loosey-goosey, and hence can lead to unfair and erroneous conclusions. While Zappala might welcome greater participation from Wecht in, say, "a shaken-baby case," the DA adds that generally, "All I want from him is the cause of death."


And there's this: Two months after he issued his official findings in the Dixon case, Wecht accepted five grand to write a report for the victim's family. That report was used in a lawsuit that reaped an $850,000 settlement from Mount Oliver.


Wecht says his work on the report is legal. Zappala says it's bullshit. Cyril says he'd welcome an investigation by the U.S. attorney or anyone else. "What did we used to say when we were kids, put up or shut up?" says Wecht. "I mean, do it man, do it."


Stevie's going to do it, all right. And my guess is Cyril is already lining up his own set of allegations implying impropriety on the part of the DA.


Judge Jeffery Manning, who will rule on the parameters of Wecht's open inquests, told me this is an incredibly complicated undertaking, because there have been many forensic and legal advances since the original statutes governing the inquests were written. He said he would try to make everybody happy, which he says will likely be "impossible."


Yes, this has gone too far to reach an amiable conclusion. Cyril's defenders say thank God someone is willing to take on the cops. His detractors will tell you he's only showboating, pandering to minority communities from which he draws private business.


Zappala says it's nothing personal. "I told him: 'This is just business.'"


Like I said, these two bastards mean business.

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