Forensic medical expert Cyril H. Wecht provides a vitally needed defendant’s perspective on the terrible Justice Department misconduct that USA Today just documented in a major investigative project.
On Sept. 23, the paper reported 201 criminal cases in which federal judges found that prosecutors broke laws or ethics rules. Overall, the abuses put innocent people in jail, and set guilty people free.
Dr. Wecht’s prosecution didn’t fall within the newspaper’s scope because his first judge in Pittsburgh coddled the prosecution instead of criticizing it. But we at the Justice Integrity Project, a non-partisan legal reform group, documented Wecht’s ordeal from 84 overblown felony charges in 2006 carrying long prison sentences for trivial matters. The defendant achieved victory last year at age 78 when a new judge pressured prosecutors to drop the final charges.
We asked the defendant to describe what it's like to be unfairly accused.
“Once a victim has been targeted,” he wrote back, “there are no limits to the amount of time, energy, money, and use of personnel that the Feds will employ to pursue and persecute that individual. No charge will be considered too petty or unimportant in their efforts to coerce the victim into pleading guilty to avoid the frightening possibility of a lengthy jail term.”
Wecht, who holds both M.D. and J.D. degrees, is a world-famous consultant in his specialty of forensic medicine. Also, he’s a longtime professor of medicine, a leader of medical societies and the author of more than 550 professional publications and many books.
Moreover, he’s an outspoken expert on celebrity deaths, including his courageous criticism of the federal government’s official account of the single-bullet theory for the 1963 assassination of President Kennedy. For 20 years prior to his indictment, he had been elected as the part-time, $65,000-a-year coroner for Allegheny County in Western Pennsylvania, where he was also Democratic county chairman.
-- Andrew Kreig
Most of the federal charges that the Bush Justice Department brought against him were for sending 43 personal faxes that cost his county an estimated grand total of $3.86. The costs were simply for the nominal phone charges and electricity, but were masked in the indictment by portentous-sounding allegations of “fraud,” with the more descriptive word “fax” not present. The other charges were similarly trivial, such as disputed reimbursement on his mileage expenses as coroner.
His cost to defend himself? Some $8.6 million for his attorneys, who included former Attorney Gen. Richard Thornburgh, who is also a Republican former Pennsylvania governor. The attorneys estimate that taxpayer costs were at least as high for the prosecution, which declines comment on their spending to imprison Wecht.
The Bush DOJ brought the case via Mary Beth Buchanan, an ambitious Republican U.S. attorney who had previously directed all 93 of DOJ’s U.S. attorneys from her office at DOJ’s Washington headquarters during 2005.
This was the same year her colleagues were seeking ways to ensure that “loyal Bushies,” as one top DOJ official wrote White House advisor Karl Rove, would fill the powerful regional U.S. attorney posts as the 2006 election season heated up. Buchanan then returned to Pittsburgh as U.S. attorney to burnish her image as fighter against corrupt Democrats in advance of her run for Congress.
Under the federal theory of the Wecht prosecution, authorities can bring similar charges against almost any local or federal government worker who uses a government-owned computer or phone ─ and who for some reason has aroused unfavorable notice from federal authorities.
Such investigations necessarily also bring under federal scrutiny the addressee of any such communications, however innocuous. This increases the scope of federal jurisdiction to a mind-boggling proportion of the population considering how many government employees occasionally use their communications equipment for an arguably personal email or call.
Wecht further explained:
When there is a politically motivated (obviously, never publicly expressed) etiology in such a federal prosecution, and especially where the selected victim enjoys some degree of celebrity, then the intensity of the criminal lawsuit is ratcheted up several notches.
Wecht, a past president of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences and also the American College of Legal Medicine, assessed the dilemma faced by unfairly accused defendants on whether to plead guilty:
For defendants, fighting is incredibly expensive, emotionally draining, and usually quite protracted. That is why the Feds can boast of a 95% success rate in guilty pleas. Very few people are capable of engaging in an all-out battle against the multi-facetted, unlimited forces that the DOJ, FBI, and other federal governmental agencies will muster in achieving their objective.
In addressing the abuses, USA Today provided a well-indexed regional chart of judicial opinions. They augmented it with such other experts as Pace University Law School Prof. Bennett Gershman, who literally wrote the book on “Prosecutorial Misconduct.”
Little known to the general public, these problems increasingly alarm legal experts on the political right, left, an in-between. The free-market Cato Institute, for example, held a compelling forum last year featuring two of its scholars with new books on the topic, Harvey Silverglate (Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent) and Timothy Lynch (In the Name of Justice).
Introduced by Washington Times columnist and former Los Angeles prosecutor Tony Blankley, all three speakers made a powerful case available on video here. Democrats and Republicans arrogantly empower DOJ to violate due process rights to advance veiled agendas.
So, there’s clearly more to say about this now USA Today has brought the topic to mainstream attention. The project focused only on judicial findings of misconduct.
But the cases are more important and dramatic when judges ignore official law-breaking or conspire to assist rogue prosecutors. We have documented such scandals, and will describe them over the next week with explosive new material pertaining to this year’s elections.
As the country nears mid-term evaluation of the Obama administration, Attorney Gen. Eric Holder, left, declined to answer questions from the newspaper about the project. That’s congruent with DOJ’s pattern. Holder declined also to take questions last week after boasting at the University of Alabama Law School about the DOJ’s civil rights record.
He knew he’d face criticism about why his DOJ continues to prosecute the state’s former governor Don Siegelman even after the DOJ’s discredited corruption case against Siegelman has become the nation’s most notorious political prosecution of the decade.
Alabama-based legal commentator Roger Shuler, one of the pioneering reporters documenting the Siegelman frame-up, today published, “USA Today Investigation Scratches the Surface of Decay in U.S. Justice System.” Harper’s columnist Scott Horton, another pioneer on the case, a few days ago characterized the newspaper project as showing, “An Ethics Meltdown at the Justice Department.”
DOJ’s cover-ups of its misconduct continues unabated, as indicated by revelations just the past two months or so, as we recently reported for Nieman Watchdog and as many others have shown in similar fashion.
Summing up, Dr. Wecht’s victory entitles him to the last word:
The flagrant abuse of governmental power by the DOJ and FBI in attempting to destroy an individual ─ financially, professionally, socially, and sometimes physically for personal and political reasons, and to an extent that is grossly disproportionate to any alleged act of criminality ─ is the hallmark of a totalitarian government.
All decent, fair-minded American citizens ─ liberal Democrats or conservative Republicans ─ need to let their voices be heard in denouncing such deplorable, dangerous tactics.
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