Cyril Wecht: Pioneer Forensic Pathologist Who Has Shaped the Law

In the opinion of many attorneys, Cyril Wecht is one of the major reasons the science of forensic pathology is now so important in the fact -finding process of the law. Wecht graduated from the University of Pittsburgh, cum laude, in 1952. During his undergraduate years, he was concert Master of the University of Pittsburgh Orchestra. His instrument was the violin. He earned his medical degree from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine in 1956 and his law degree from the University of Maryland in 1962.

Upon graduation from law school, he began his medical practice as a forensic pathologist. He said he was fascinated with the forensic pathology field and began his practice on the staff of Saint Francis Hospital in Pittsburgh. He became the deputy coroner of Allegheny County in 1965. at that time, the coroner was elected to office. Wecht was the elected coroner from 1970- 1980 and again from 1996 -2006.

He has an active practice testifying as an expert in civil and criminal cases. William Pietragallo, a Pittsburgh trial attorney said, “For more than 40 years I have known Cyril Wecht as a forensic pathologist. He was always up to the task, and never shy about stating his opinion. I have collaborated with him and against him in a number of lawsuits. I recall occasions when he told a party they had no case, and other times when he accelerated litigation based upon his notion of what had occurred. As an expert witness, he was both a tough adversary and capable ally.”

In the year 2000 Duquesne University Law School established the Cyril H. Wecht Institute of Forensic Science and Law which offers a graduate degree in forensic science. The Institute attracts students from many very fields including nursing, business, law enforcement, and health sciences. Professor Jane Moriarty, at the law school, commented that Wecht is always involved in the Institute’s annual program in various capacities: procuring speakers, arranging the program and often acting as a panel member.

Professor Jane Moriarty, said that she admires Wecht for his courage and maintaining his positions, even if they are in the minority of opinions of other experts. his critical comments regarding the Warren commission’s report on the assassination of President John F Kennedy area evidence of that.

President John F Kennedy was assassinated on November 22nd, 1963. the Warren Commission was appointed by President Lyndon B Johnson to investigate the assassination. The commission was chaired by Chief Justice Earl Warren of the US Supreme Court, two U.S. senators, two members of the U.S. House of Representatives, and several other individuals. The Warren Commission released its final report in September 1964. On February 25th, 1966, Wecht made a presentation to the American Academy of  Forensic Sciences in Chicago in which he was critical of certain key findings of the Warren Commission’s report on The assassination. Wecht disputed the commission’s findings indicating that the single bullet that struck Kennedy in his back was also responsible for seven wounds in Kennedy and Governor John Connally of Texas who was riding in the same car with Kennedy. He also disputed that only one person, Lee Harvey Oswald, was involved in the assassination.The ramifications of his speech spread worldwide. Numerous news commentators have debated his conclusions, which debates have continued to the present. One commentator who gave West credit for his findings is Geraldo Rivera, of Fox News who said, “When it comes to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, few people have a better understanding of the medical evidence than my friend, famed forensic pathologist, Dr Cyril Wecht.”

Wecht questioned why the two Navy doctors who were assigned to conduct the autopsy were not board-certified forensic pathologists, and neither had ever performed an autopsy on a gunshot wound victim. He noted that the autopsy report on Kennedy did not discuss the path of the bullet, such as its entrance, exit, and trajectory, or other very technical aspects of the wound. An autopsy report on a gunshot victim is usually well over 20 pages. The autopsy report of Kennedy was six pages. In contrast , the autopsy report of his brother, Robert Kennedy, who died of multiple gunshot wounds was 26 pages in length.

Wecht was intrigued by the evidence of the assassination and attempted to obtain more details. Jacqueline Kennedy had given all the personal clothing worn by President Kennedy , at the time of death, and records of his autopsy to the national archives in Washington D.C., with the stipulation that no one could view them for 5 years. Wecht finally got permission with the assistance of Fred Graham, a reporter from the New York Times, to review the materials. Wecht was the first non-government person permitted to view the material, Graham accompanied him to the archives, but Wecht was the only one permitted to review the materials. During the examination, Wecht discovered that the location of President Kennedy’s brain, which was damaged by a bullet, was missing. As a key part of the autopsy, it was to be preserved in fluid for further examination by other experts. There was no record where it was located. When Wecht met Graham after the review, he informed Grahm of this strange circumstance. Graham then published the fact of  its disappearance had been discovered by Wecht. Wecht worked for several years trying to discover what had happened to the brain but was never successful. Wecht is of the opinionthat after another generation of the Kennedy family has died, someone will likely reveal the location of the brain.

For those reading this article who were born after November 22nd, 1963 and who are not privy to the many conflicting theories that emerged after Kennedy’s assassination, I recommend reading Wecht book “The JFK Assassination Dissected”, Exposit Publishing, Jefferson, North Carolina, 2022. It is a classic nonfiction “who done it” with many unanswered questions: how many persons were involved in the shooting: was Oswald a part of a conspiracy with other persons who were high-ranking members of the government; how is it possible that Oswald was assassinated a few days later while in police custody and on his way, under protective guard, to a hearing.

Wecht’s career has involved him in numerous Infamous complex cases. They include consulting with public officials on the following matters: the Los Angeles Coroner’s Office and Medical Examiner on the assassination of Robert Kennedy; the U.S. House of Representatives Select Committee on Assassination, regarding the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King:  and with the defense attorneys in the O.J. Simpson murder case. Space restrictions prevent a detailed discussion of his many cases in the United States and other parts of the world.

Wecht’s career in controversial matters lead to his confrontation with some state and federal prosecutors. in 1979, he was indicted by the District Attorney of Allegheny County on six criminal charges for earning approximately $400,000 from private clients, while acting as coroner and using county facilities and the county morgue. Two charges were dismissed by the judge at a preliminary hearing. Prior to trial, the district attorney withdrew another charge. After a six-week trial, the trial judge dismissed two of the charges. The jury found him not guilty of the only remaining charge.

In 2007, the US Attorney in Pittsburgh obtained an indictment against Wecht  on 84 counts of mail fraud for using his public office for a dishonest purpose. In January 2008, prior to the start of the trial, the U.S. attorney withdrew 43 of the charges. Following a two-month trial, in which Jerry S. McDevitt, Wecht’s attorney, put on no defense case, the jury failed to reach a verdict, and the judge declared a mistrial. The  U.S. attorney declared she was prepared to retry the case. Wecht appealed, citing a violation of the rule against double jeopardy. The court of appeals denied the appeal, but in an unusual order, remove the trial judge from the case, and directed the lower court to assign a new judge. On May 14th, 2009, the new judge rule that the crucial evidence supporting the charges was suppressed as it was obtained by illegal search warrants. The US attorney then dismissed the charges. Wecht’s trial attorney, describe the prosecution as ill-fated from the start as the male fraud theory used by the prosecutors was subsequently ruled by the Supreme Court and improper criminal theory, and the charges brought were based on a legally obtained evidence.

These trials did not deter Wecht from continuing with his career. He fought all charges with courage and good lawyers, and continued handling cases for clients.

Wecht has been a Pioneer in the practice of forensic pathology. His career is best described by Alan Dershowitz, noted criminal trial lawyer, who made this observation, “When Cyril Wecht started practicing, his profession was not highly regarded. …Forensic science is “in” today; however, in those days, when he was first practicing, Cyril was the lone ranger and he created the profession, professionalized it, and made it what it is today, which is central to the administration of justice.”

Peter Vaira is a member of Weir Greenblatt Pierce. He is a former U.S. attorney and the author of a book on Eastern District practice. He acts as special hearing master for Pennsylvania courts and clients. He can be reached at

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