Celebrated forensic pathologist Cyril Wecht dies at 93
News obituaryWecht impacted forensic pathology, local politics

Celebrated forensic pathologist Cyril Wecht dies at 93

Famed Pittsburgher was nationally known for his work with JFK assassination, O.J. Simpson homicide

Dr. Cyril Wecht. Photo courtesy of Dr. Cyril Wecht
Dr. Cyril Wecht. Photo courtesy of Dr. Cyril Wecht

Cyril Wecht, a famed pathologist, political powerhouse, author, Zionist, husband, father and devoted Pittsburgher, died on May 13. He was 93.
Born March 20, 1931, to Jewish immigrants Nathan Wecht and Fannie Rubenstein, Wecht was raised in Bobtown, McKees Rocks and then the Lower Hill District, where his father opened a grocery store.

He attended Fifth Avenue High School, graduating as class valedictorian, before attending the University of Pittsburgh. At college, he was president of Phi Epsilon Pi fraternity, concertmaster of Pitt’s orchestra, business manager of the Pitt News and president of the YMCA.

Wecht graduated from Pitt with a Bachelor of Science degree and then from its School of Medicine. After graduation, he joined the Air Force. It was while serving as a captain that he met his wife, Sigrid. The pair had four children: David, Daniel, Benjamin and Ingrid.

The future medical examiner next spent time in Baltimore, attending the University of Maryland School of Law and earning a juris doctor degree while working in the medical examiner’s office. The family eventually returned to Pittsburgh, where Wecht earned a second law degree from the University of Pittsburgh.

A few years older than Wecht, Pittsburgher Moses Finder attended dental school at Pitt and was a member of Phi Epsilon Pi.

Finder remembered Wecht as a man who “never slept.”

“He worked at the new VA hospital as a resident pathologist and made arrangements to go to law school in the morning because that’s when the classes were, and then he would do his residence in the afternoon and early evening. At night, he worked as a doctor,” Finder said.

That drive proved crucial to Wecht, who showed an early interest in the burgeoning field of forensic pathology. He worked four jobs in the early days of his career: as a deputy at the coroner’s office; as an assistant district attorney/medical-legal adviser to the district attorney; as a pathologist at the Veteran’s Administration Hospital-Leech Farm; and as an attorney.

Coroner career and national attention
Wecht was elected Allegheny County coroner in 1970, serving in the position until 1980. He was reelected a second time in 1996, serving for four years.

Allegheny County Medical Examiner Dr. Ariel Goldschmidt said the office mourned the death of Wecht, calling him “an icon in the field of forensic medicine.”

“Dr. Wecht continued performing casework well into his 90s and never shied away from opinions that challenged conventional viewpoints,” Goldschmidt said. “His colorful and larger-than-life personality and commitment to teaching will cause him to be missed by many.”

Wecht gained national attention in 1964 when he was asked to review the Warren Commission’s report that concluded Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunman who assassinated President John F. Kennedy.

Wecht called the commission’s conclusion “absolute nonsense.”

The Associated Press reported that attorney F. Lee Bailey called Wecht “the single most important spearhead of challenge” to the report.
Wecht criticized a staffer on the commission, Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter. The pair would eventually form a friendship with Specter supporting Wecht during a five-year legal battle.

Wecht went on to write books about the O.J. Simpson and JonBenét Ramsey cases and perform an independent autopsy on the body of Daniel Smith, the son of actress Anna Nicole Smith.

Wecht performed approximately 21,000 autopsies and reviewed or was consulted on about 42,000 additional postmortem examinations, according to his biography.

Political career
Just as influential in local politics as he was in the field of forensic pathology, Wecht was elected chairman of the Allegheny County Democratic Party in 1978. A year later, he was elected to the Allegheny County Board of Commissioners.

In 1980, he was elected as Allegheny County Commissioner before unsuccessfully challenging Sen. John Heinz in 1982.

Wecht also ran as the Democratic nominee for the newly created position of Allegheny County Chief Executive in 1999. He lost to Republican businessman Jim Roddey.

He was appointed the county’s first medical examiner by Chief Executive Dan Onorato in 2006.

When not in office, Wecht was a familiar voice on KQV radio where he served as a political commentator during the radio station’s election coverage, often with announcer P.J. Maloney.

Maloney said Wecht was a fixture at the station through the ’90s and into the new century.

“He was a character,” Maloney said. “I got along with him well. I don’t think anyone had to beg him for an interview. He was a lot of fun. He said what was on his mind and was probably one of the smartest guys I’ve ever met in my life.”

Wecht, Maloney said, had his finger on the pulse of Allegheny County and Pittsburgh politics, which often meant he disagreed with some of the decisions made on the other side of the state.

“One time we were in the studio, and he was upset with some Democrats in Philadelphia, who he thought were much too progressive for the likes of Pittsburgh. He said, ‘We refer to them as f—– jagoffs.’ It went over the air and hit me like a punch. The newsroom was staring at me, master control was staring at me. We had a seven-second delay, but I didn’t use it and it went out over the air.”

Legal battles
Wecht’s career wasn’t without controversy.

In 1979, he was accused of misusing his public office for personal gain. He was indicted on several charges. All but one were dismissed. He was acquitted of the one remaining charge.

In 2008, Wecht faced a federal trial, charged with public corruption. Several of the charges were dropped during the trial, and a judge eventually declared a mistrial on the remaining counts. The prosecution announced plans to retry Wecht; however, after political and public outrage, which challenged the case as politically motivated, the charges were dismissed in 2009.

Wecht was a staunch supporter of Israel. He had a lifetime membership to the Zionist Organization of America and served as an active board member and frequent lecturer, according to Stuart Pavilack, executive director of the ZOA’s Pittsburgh chapter.

“Cyril was a devoted member of ZOA,” Pavilack said. “I could always give him a call whenever I needed a favor or help coordinating something. It’s a huge loss to the Jewish community and the city of Pittsburgh. They don’t make any more Cyrils. He had Yiddishkeit, love of America and our community.”

Wecht’s legacy is larger than most medical, legal and political figures. He is the co-author of more than 650 professional publications and is the author or co-author of numerous books including “Grave Secrets: A Leading Forensic Expert Reveals the Startling Truth about O.J. Simpson, David Koresh, Vince Foster and Other Sensational Cases,” and “Who Killed JonBenét Ramsey?”

He was known across the nation as a frequent television commentator on high-profile cases, including the deaths of Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson. He often appeared on the “Today” show and “Good Morning America” during O.J. Simpson’s homicide trial.

Wecht served as a consultant on several films, including “Concussion” and “JFK.”

In 2000, the Cyril H. Wecht Institute of Forensic Science and Law was founded at Duquesne University. It is an internationally acclaimed center for professional and general public education and training in applied forensic science.

Duquesne President Ken Gormley said he was proud to call Wecht a longtime colleague.

“His professional acumen, captivating science and keen intellect will sorely be missed by the Duquesne community, the region he served so faithfully and the entire world that recognized him as one of the great forensic pathologists of our time,” Gormely said.

His public persona didn’t preclude Wecht from creating personal relationships, as well.

Kim Paskorz, the former digital content editor of the Butler Eagle, recalled on Facebook about being assigned to write a report on the Kennedy assassination when she was in high school.

“Of course, I didn’t do my homework. The night before my report was due, I looked in the phone book and, sure enough, found a listed number for Cyril Wecht. Not only did he take the call of an inquisitive teenager, but he spent a good hour on the phone talking to me for my report,” she recounted.

Rabbi Aaron Bisno officiated Wecht’s funeral service. He said he had only known Wecht for a few years, but they bonded immediately when they first met.

“We became really close,” Bisno said. “We went out to dinner together; I would visit with him. I took an enormous amount of strength and encouragement from his recognizing in me a kindred spirit and friend. I believe we can judge each other by the company we keep, and I was very proud to be able to say that genuinely I considered him a friend.”

Former Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said Wecht has a long and distinguished public service career.

“His influence on the forensic pathology profession cannot be overstated,” Fitzgerald said. “He became a pioneer within his field, and for nearly seven decades was sought after by government officials, celebrities and industry leaders for his expertise.”

Pennsylvania state Rep. Dan Frankel was one of the many local and state politicians who remembered Wecht on X, formerly Twitter.

“He always had something to say and was devoted to learning more,” Frankel wrote.

A public memorial service will take place on Sunday, June 30, at 1 p.m. at Temple Sinai. It will also be livestreamed. PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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