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Dr. Cyril H. Wecht, longtime Allegheny County coroner and Warren Commission critic, dies at 93

An old white man speaks at a lectern.
Keith Srakocic
FILE - Pathologist and former Allegheny County Coroner Dr. Cyril Wecht speaks during the swearing in ceremony for Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice and his son, David N. Wecht, Jan. 7, 2016, at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.

Former Allegheny County Coroner and internationally known forensic pathologist Dr. Cyril H. Wecht, whose multifaceted career included stints in Democratic politics and as an expert consultant on high-profile death investigations, has died at age 93.

Wecht's death was announced by the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, which did not disclose a cause or place of death, saying only that he “passed away peacefully.” He was a longtime resident of Squirrel Hill.

Through his lengthy career, Wecht performed approximately 21,000 autopsies and reviewed or consulted on approximately 42,000 additional postmortem examinations, according to his biography at Duquesne University. Later in life, he served as chair of the advisory board of the university's Cyril H. Wecht Institute of Forensic Science and Law.

Wecht gained national renown as a longtime critic of the findings of The President's Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy, also known as the Warren Commission, which concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated the former president and acted alone in doing so.

He also wrote or co-wrote more than 650 professional publications and edited or co-edited dozens of books. Among them was the non-fiction book, "Who Killed JonBenet Ramsey?," which examined the highly publicized investigation of the 6-year-old beauty queen whose death remains unsolved.

In addition to serving for two decades as county coroner and later medical examiner, Wecht also was a one-term Allegheny County commissioner and an often controversial leader in Democratic Party politics.

He ended his second stint as coroner and medical examiner, in 2006, when he resigned after being indicted on fraud and theft charges.

His first term, from 1970 to 1980, was also fraught. Then, too, he was accused of using county morgue facilities for his private forensic business while coroner. He paid $200,000 in restitution following a lengthy legal fight.

A run for U.S. Senate against John Heinz III in 1982 was unsuccessful. He also ran unsuccessfully in 1999 for the newly created role of Allegheny County Executive in a close race with Republican Jim Roddey.

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A native of Greene County and son of a grocer, Wecht was a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh and its medical school, as well as the University of Maryland School of Law.

His almost meteoric rise to fame began in 1964, three years after he reentered civilian life after serving a brief stint at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama. At the time, Wecht was serving as an assistant district attorney in Allegheny County and a pathologist in a Pittsburgh hospital.

The request came from a group of forensic scientists: Review the Warren Commission's report that concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone, assassinated Kennedy. And Wecht, with his usual thoroughness, did just that — the beginning of what became a lifelong obsession to prove his theory that there was more than one shooter involved in the killing.

After reviewing the autopsy documents, discovering the president's brain had gone missing, and viewing an amateur video of the assassination, Wecht concluded the commission's findings that there was a single bullet involved in the attack that killed Kennedy and injured Texas Gov. John Connally was "absolute nonsense."

Wecht's lecture circuit demonstration detailing his theory that it was impossible for one bullet to cause the damage it did on that November day in Dallas made its way into Oliver Stone's movie "JFK" after the director consulted with him. It became the famous courtroom scene showing the path of the “magic bullet.”

Attorney F. Lee Bailey called Wecht the "single most important spearhead of challenge" to the Warren report. Wecht's verbal sparring with then-Sen. Arlen Specter, a staffer on the commission, also became well known, culminating in an accusation in his book "Cause of Death" that the politician's support of the single-bullet theory was "an asinine, pseudoscientific sham at best."

Yet, somehow, Wecht and Specter overcame their differences and developed something of a friendship, with the senator coming to the pathologist's defense during a grueling, five-year legal battle that sapped him of much of his life's savings and ended in 2009.

In the end, Wecht emerged victorious in that, as well, when a series of legal maneuvers and judicial decisions forced prosecutors to drop all fraud and theft charges against him in a case that revolved around accusations that he had used his public post as coroner to further his multimillion-dollar private practice.

Wecht's outspokenness on the Kennedy assassination, and the publicity he generated, later made him a go-to pathologist on dozens of other high-profile cases ranging from Elvis Presley to Ramsey.

At the homicide trial of school head Jean Harris, accused of murdering “Scarsdale Diet” Dr. Herman Tarnower, Wecht testified unsuccessfully for the defense. His testimony at the trial of Claus von Bulow may have helped acquit Von Bulow of charges he tried to kill his heir wife, Sunny.

After studying Elvis' autopsy report, Wecht concluded, and shared his findings on national television, that the King of Rock had likely died of an overdose, not heart disease. His findings spurred Tennessee officials to reopen the case in 1994, though, in the end, the official cause of death remained unchanged.

In the months preceding the O.J. Simpson homicide trial in 1994, Wecht was a frequent talk show guest, conjecturing on the "Today" show and "Good Morning America" about the significance of blood samples and other evidence.

When Michael Jackson died in 2009, Wecht again took to the airwaves, discussing the deadly mix of drugs and sedatives that killed the King of Pop.

Though he spent more than five decades dealing with death on an almost daily basis, Wecht managed to remain generally upbeat, his hearty laugh rumbling from deep within his gut, often humoring himself with his own, sometimes insulting and caustic, jokes.

Still, in a series of interviews with The Associated Press in 2009, Wecht was circumspect, dwelling on the possibility of his own death. His biggest fear, he noted at the time, was suffering or becoming dependent on others or friends and family.

"I want to be alive when I die. Think about that," Wecht said. “I mean, OK, what is life?”

It's key, he said, to die recognizing those you love, because when you die, they won't be there anymore.

"I will be separated from my wife and my children and my grandchildren and, someday, my great-grandchildren. That's what death means to me," Wecht said. "I'd like to have it go on forever."

Always the realist, however, Wecht took the time to detail many of his cases in six books. In "Cause of Death" — a book authored by Wecht, his son Benjamin, and Mark Curriden, formerly a writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The Dallas Morning News — attorney Alan Dershowitz praised the pathologist as the "Sherlock Holmes of forensic sciences."

Wecht is survived by his wife, Sigrid; four children, Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice David Wecht, and Daniel Wecht, Benjamin Wecht and Ingrid Wecht; and 11 grandchildren.

Funeral and burial arrangements will be private. A public memorial service is planned, but the date is not determined.

Updated: May 13, 2024 at 2:10 PM EDT
Updated to include information about funeral arrangements.
Cindi Lash joined Pittsburgh Community Broadcasting in 2021 from Missouri Lawyers Media, a subsidiary of BridgeTower Media, where she began her tenure as editor and regional editor in 2018. Before joining BridgeTower, she served as editor-in-chief at Pittsburgh Magazine for four years, and as regional editor of local news startup She previously spent 20 years as a reporter and editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
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