Cyril H. Wecht, Coroner Who Cast Doubt on Kennedy Assassination, Dies at 93

Cyril H. Wecht, Coroner Who Cast Doubt on Kennedy Assassination, Dies at 93

Dr. Cyril H. Wecht, a pathologist and lawyer whose professional reputation as the “godfather of forensic medicine” was at times overshadowed by his side gig as a TV commentator on suspicious celebrity deaths, his prominent criticism of the Warren Report which concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in assassinating President John F. Kennedy, and his role as one of the most powerful figures in the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, died on Monday at his home in Pittsburgh. He was 93.

His son Benjamin confirmed the death.

Dr. Wecht, who spent almost his entire life in Pittsburgh, was best known as a “celebrity coroner,” offering his opinions on famous deaths, both in courtrooms as an expert witness and on TV as a frequent guest on shows like “Geraldo” and “Larry King Live.”

Never shy with his opinion, he insisted that Elvis Presley had most likely died of a drug overdose at a time when fans did not want to admit the King had an addiction and that the coroners in the trial of O.J. Simpson had botched the autopsies of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. His pugnacious character kept him on speed dial among media bookers.

His early prominence came from his willingness to challenge the conclusion by a commission, led by Chief Justice Earl Warren, that Oswald was solely responsible for the assassination of President Kennedy in Dallas in 1963.

Invited in 1964 by the American Academy of Forensic Sciences to present a critique of the Warren Report, Dr. Wecht spent nearly a year poring over the underlying data. In his 1965 presentation, he detailed significant errors, including the decision to let two untrained Navy pathologists perform the autopsy.

In 1972, he was the first civilian allowed to review the government’s evidence at the National Archives, including autopsy reports, and the first to reveal that the president’s brain, along with several important specimen slides, had gone missing.

Dr. Wecht concluded that it was physically impossible for a single bullet from a single rifle to do so much damage in such a short time. He was not a conspiracy theorist, but he believed that a second shooter must have been present.

“Once you eliminate the single-bullet theory, you’re in the area of two persons involved,” he testified before a House committee in 1978.

Dr. Wecht was much more than a celebrity coroner. He was widely regarded as one of the leading forensic pathologists of the last century and the person perhaps most responsible for modernizing the field and ensuring its place at the center of the American justice system.

When Dr. Wecht started working at the coroner’s office of Allegheny County, which includes Pittsburgh, in 1965, its facilities were outdated, its staff was untrained and its conclusions were often useless to law enforcement and the courts.

“They had no equipment to do things except an old porcelain autopsy table — really an old embalmer’s table — and they did very few autopsies,” he told the Beaver County Times in 1989.

With degrees in both medicine and law, as well as a few years of service in the U.S. Air Force, Dr. Wecht brought professionalism and precision to the office. By the mid-1970s, it was considered one of the best in the country.

He used his position aggressively, examining suspicious deaths to uncover police abuse as well as unsafe conditions in workplaces and nursing homes, often butting heads with police departments and district attorneys.

At the time, the Allegheny County coroner was an elected position, so Dr. Wecht was by necessity a politician. He served two terms in the role, from 1970 to 1980 and from 1996 to 2006.

In 1980, he was elected to the county board of commissioners, and in 1982 ran unsuccessfully against John Heinz, the incumbent, for a Senate seat. He served as chairman of the Allegheny County Democratic Committee from 1978 to 1982.

Dr. Wecht was a popular, if at times divisive, character around Pittsburgh, where “Wechtian” — loosely defined as brusque, ebullient and brilliant — was practically part of the local dialect.

Chief among his enemies was The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Known for firing off caustic letters to public figures, newspaper editors and private citizens, he called the paper’s staff “malicious editorial pimps and reporter prostitutes.” Its editors in turn criticized his handling of the coroner’s office and refused to endorse him in his various political endeavors.

Dr. Wecht claimed that other nemeses were behind two sets of charges accusing him of abusing his office, once in 1979 by Allegheny County and again in 2006 by the Department of Justice.

Both cases, in which he was accused of using the coroner’s office to benefit his private pathology practice, started hotly — in 2006 federal authorities initially brought 84 counts against him. But the charges withered away quickly.

After fighting the 1980 allegations for years, Dr. Wecht agreed to settle with the county for $200,000. The 2006 case ended in a mistrial, and the charges were dropped entirely in 2009.

Though the second case was draining, emotionally and financially, he remained Wechtian.

“Is this the way justice is pursued in America?” he said at a news conference afterward, where he held up a framed order of the case’s dismissal and tore into the lead prosecutor, Mary Beth Buchanan. “I think the record will speak for itself. As for her record, that will speak for itself, too.”

Cyril Harrison Wecht was born on March 20, 1931, in Pittsburgh, though he spent his first seven years living in Bobtown, a mining village along the West Virginia border. His parents were both Jewish immigrants: His father, Nathan, came from Lithuania, and his mother, Fannie (Rubenstein) Wecht, came from what is now Ukraine. They ran a grocery store.

The family later moved to Pittsburgh. The only child of a father who pushed his son to excel, Cyril blossomed in high school and college, at the University of Pittsburgh, where he was a star student, concertmaster of the campus orchestra and a national officer in his fraternity. He was also president of the school’s Y.M.C.A. chapter — no small achievement for a Jewish student in the early 1950s.

He received his bachelor’s of science degree in 1952 and his medical degree in 1956, both from Pittsburgh. Always interested in the law, by the time he arrived at medical school, he was determined to go into forensic pathology, a field that merged the medical and legal disciplines.

He served for two years as an officer at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama, home to a large military hospital. There he met Sigrid Ronsdal, a recent emigrant from Norway who was working as a translator. They married in 1961.

Along with his son Benjamin, he is survived by his wife, their other children, David, Daniel and Ingrid, and 11 grandchildren.

He completed his medical training in Pittsburgh and Baltimore while also working toward a law degree, which he received from the University of Maryland in 1962.

Dr. Wecht estimated that he had performed more than 17,000 autopsies in his career and reviewed many thousands more. Yet he said that he never grew desensitized about the work he was doing.

“There are certain things to which you can’t acclimatize,” he told The Pittsburgh Quarterly in 2011, adding, “the most important thing is never to lose cognizance of the fact that I’m dealing with deceased human beings. Somebody somewhere loved these people”

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