Thursday, January 26, 2006

Weak coroner, less justice?

The joy of some at seeing former coroner Cyril Wecht’s apparent downfall is evident throughout Pittsburgh, but I’m not sure that people realize what they will be missing with any other coroner, versus having Wecht at the post.

First, the fact that the coroner’s office now is an appointed position, coupled with the recent court decision decreasing the coroner’s power, makes me wonder what check we have now against the power of the district attorney’s office.

Before I go further I want to admit that I didn’t vote for Wecht for Allegheny County executive. Though I am an independent voter and I lean to the left, I voted for Jim Roddey because I felt that he would bring a more business-like approach to the job than Wecht would. Old Cyril runs his mouth too much, and the idea of him leading the county made me nervous. But I still respected his abilities as coroner, and I particularly admired his willingness to make decisions that contradicted the perspective of the district attorney’s office.

During his time as coroner, Wecht held numerous inquests in which he severely criticized police actions that resulted in a death, or in which he criticized corporate wrongdoings. He has not been afraid of any district attorney, or anyone else, and that may have been part of what led to his present situation. It may turn out that Wecht used his office for his own personal gain, but that is a matter for the courts. The fact remains that he was the person who was most willing and in the best position to criticize the district attorney’s version of events in an incident.

District attorneys, across the board, don’t like to be told that they are wrong. And it seems that a feud that Wecht had with District Attorney Stephen Zappala led to investigations that resulted in his recent indictment.

District attorneys, for all intents and purposes, are lawyer-cops who carry badges. They are part of the police side of the court system, and that’s OK and as it should be. But district attorneys must stay on the good side of cops in order to effectively do their jobs, and that’s fine, too. Still, to lessen or stifle dissenting opinions on matters as grave as people dying at the hands of police, or workers being killed in accidents that could have been prevented, seems to be less than democratic and less than American.

I am not suggesting that Zappala is corrupt, or that his intentions are less than admirable. I do think that given his occupation, it would be exceedingly difficult for him to give a truly unbiased opinion in some matters, particularly police-related matters.

And even in past cases in which the district attorney gave Wecht a free hand in an open inquest, such as the inquest into the death of ironworker Paul Corsi, the coroner’s findings haven’t necessarily swayed Zappala.

A little more than a year after a coroner's inquest recommended homicide charges against Dick Corp. for Corsi's death on February 12, 2002 at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Zappala said the other ironworkers at the new David L. Lawrence Convention Center created the situation that caused the accident. Zappala didn’t press charges against the company, which served as the steel erection subcontractor for the project. He said there was insufficient evidence to press criminal charges against Dick Corp. or any other party for the death of Corsi, 38, who was killed when the 13th of 15 trusses in the convention center collapsed, crushing him and injuring two other workers.

It was those workers to whom Zappala pointed as having the greatest responsibility for the accident.

"If you're going to climb the steel, then you've got to see that the connections are made properly," Zappala said. If criminal charges were possible, the "raising crew" of ironworkers laboring on the truss would be charged, he said, adding that there just wasn't enough evidence to charge anyone for the accident. "The contributory responsibility of the raising crew is what this would come down to."

The press conference announcing Zappala’s findings in the Corsi case occurred just weeks before the planned grand opening bash for the convention center. The coincidence prompted some journalists to question whether or not Zappala's decision was motivated by politics. Zappala had indicated his interest in running for state attorney general, and it also was common knowledge that Dick Corp. contributed to his previous election campaign. Zappala responded that politics had nothing to do with his decision.

Zappala's conclusions contradicted the coroner's inquest findings. Led by Allegheny County Coroner Cyril H. Wecht and presiding attorney Michael C. George, the inquest into Corsi’s death and the collapse at the convention center faulted Dick Corp. for the accident.

"The failures at every level of this project are so blatant and overwhelming that...errors and omissions on the part of Dick Corp. more than rise to the level of recklessness and grossly negligent conduct," said Wecht and George's inquest report. "It is the conclusion that the manner of death of Paul Corsi Jr., which had been listed as accidental, be changed to homicide, and that [Dick Corp.] be held criminally liable."

Wecht found that improper nuts were used to fasten the truss together. Smaller, one-inch nuts were used instead of larger, two-inch, heat-treated nuts. The smaller nuts were meant as secondary, or "jam" nuts, to be installed behind the larger ones.

At the time, George referred to an "almost cavalier attitude" on the part of Dick Corp. that led to the accident. "The testimony was abundantly clear that the ironworkers were never instructed about the need to use the case-hardened nuts," he said.

Even in a case as seemingly clear-cut as this one, Zappala and Wecht were in complete disagreement. I didn’t view that as necessarily a bad thing, and I still don’t. Allegheny County needs a coroner who is not afraid to challenge the district attorney. Unfortunately, we’ll never replace Wecht with a similarly cocky person who is beyond reproach, and who’ll fight the D.A. at the drop of a hat. I think that’s a bad thing.


Ol' Froth said...

I think you'll find (if you dig) that many, many rank-and-file police officers are not happy with Zappalla. His office generally LOSES the high-profile cases that come up, cases that are high-profile because the DA's office made them high-profile, and cases where manytimes, investigating officers advised not to bring charges because the evidence just wasn't there.

Jonathan Barnes said...

Thanks for the tip, Froth.

Jonathan Potts said...

Former Trib writer John Temple wrote a book, "Deadhouse" about the Allegheny County Coroner's office, which I reviewed for the PG. Temple said that Wecht has always argued that you needed an elected coroner to maintain independence. At least under row office reform recently approved by voters, the medical examiner can't be fired.

Jonathan Barnes said...

Good point, Jonathan.
Thanks for letting me know about that piece you did, which is a good one.
Here's the link to the Potts piece on "Deadhouse,":

Jonathan Potts said...