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August 2010

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Dr. Cyril Wecht Interview: Famous Forensic Pathologist on JFK, JonBenet Ramsey, and O.J. Simpson

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Cyril Wecht

Nationally renowned forensic pathologist Dr. Cyril Harrison Wecht was born on March 20, 1931 in the Pittsburgh suburb of Dunkard Township, Pennsylvania. He has served as a consultant in numerous high-profile cases, but is perhaps best known for his outspoken criticism of the Warren Commission’s findings concerning the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Wecht has served as the president of both the American Academy of Forensic Science and the American College of Legal Medicine, and currently heads the board of trustees of the American Board of Legal Medicine. He served as the county commissioner, coroner, and later Medical Examiner of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania.

“In the O.J. case they never even called the medical examiner until 8 hours later and even then they didn’t have access to the scene for another hour and a half.”

In addition to his duties as a pathologist and coroner, Wecht also earned a J.D. degree from the University of Maryland School of law, is a teacher and an author of numerous books including Into Evidence: Truth, Lies and Unresolved Mysteries in the Murder of JFK, Mortal Evidence: The Forensics Behind Nine Shocking Cases, Grave Secrets: A Leading Forensic Expert Reveals the Startling Truth about O.J. Simpson, David Koresh, Vincent Foster, and Other Sensational Cases, and Who Killed JonBenet Ramsey?

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Dr. Wecht, you were interested in becoming a professional musician when you were younger, weren’t you?

Cyril Wecht

Cyril Wecht (Courtesy of Cyril Wecht)

Dr. Cyril Wecht: I play the violin very seriously. I played every major concerto by memory and performed on several stages here in Pittsburgh. I was concertmaster at the University of Pittsburgh orchestra for the four years. But then regrettably, when I went into medical school I stopped.

I get guilt feelings every time someone asks me because I have two good violins still at home. I’ve just been so busy all these years. Maybe in another five years when I retire I’ll get back to the violin.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Why the change from music to medicine?

Dr. Cyril Wecht: Well, I was an only child and my father, from the day I was one year old, said I was going to be a doctor. My father and mother were first generation immigrants and he wanted me to be a doctor. So that was it. I went on to medical school then to law school.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Where did you spend your military time?

Dr. Cyril Wecht: For two years I was at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Dr. Wecht, you’re a professor, coroner, attorney, and an author. Which do you prefer?

Dr. Cyril Wecht: It’s really not a matter of preference because it all funnels in. But, the major part of my work is performing autopsies as a forensic pathologist for coroners and district attorneys in outlying counties (not now in Allegheny County). I have been the coroner and medical examiner and do about 330 autopsies a year for these coroners including private autopsies for families and attorneys.

I’m a consultant in civil and criminal cases for attorneys all over the country, even occasionally from abroad in worker’s compensation and industrial claims. That’s a very big part of what I do.

I also teach and we have a book that will be published before the summer is over concerning police involved deaths. I’m the senior author along with my colleague, Dr. Henry Lee, and two retired police chiefs. The book deals with all kinds of situations in which a citizen or a police officer dies as a result of some kind of altercation or confrontation.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Does being a coroner ever affect you now or in the beginning of your career?

Dr. Cyril Wecht: It affects me always and I hope it never stops affecting me as a sensitive and concerned human being. I have strong emotions, which I’m not hesitant to manifest when I see death, particularly deaths of infants and children and tragedies where somebody has been mindlessly killed or young people die in motor vehicle accidents.

Those kinds of cases have always upset me, but you deal with them. That’s the nature of the work and it has to be done. I have a great sense of accomplishment in knowing that my work is not only important but it is critical for the court and criminal justice system to work.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Is part of a coroner’s job being a family counselor?

Dr. Cyril Wecht: Yes, we always respond when families want to come in and talk. I established a policy of writing letters to parents of sudden infant death syndrome cases and invite them to come and talk. I’ve always made myself available by phone or in person whenever a family wanted to discuss a death or ask questions about findings. I’ve always appreciated the delicacy and sensitivity of the human tragedy involved in these cases.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You’ve been involved in many high profile cases over the years.

Dr. Cyril Wecht: Yes I have, going back to JFK, Robert Kennedy, Mary Jo Kopechne involving Ted Kennedy, all the way through to Elvis Presley, Sunny Van Bulow, Tammy Wynette, Jean Harris, and the Waco Branch Davidian fire. Then there were the Ron Brown and Vincent Foster cases, O.J. Simpson, JonBenet Ramsey, Phil Spector, the basketball player Jason Williams, the Laci Peterson case, Anna Nicole Smith, and her son Daniel Smith.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Dr. Wecht, in the President John F. Kennedy case, what was the first obvious clue you had that told you there was more than one bullet fired in the assassination?

Dr. Cyril Wecht: The first obvious clue is when you look at the sine qua non Warren Commission’s report’s conclusion vis-à-vis Oswald is the sole assassin. Without the single bullet theory, there cannot be one assassin. You either have a single bullet theory, which permits you to have one shooter, or you don’t. If you don’t you’ve got to have two shooters.

There were seven wounds in two men; two large bones broken, four inches of a rib in Gov. John Connally destroyed, and the distal radius fractured extensively. Look at the trajectory which the bullet is zig zagging, the positions of the two men, and the bullet that has left pieces of itself which are demonstrable on x-ray in four different anatomic locations; one in Kennedy and three in Connally. a bullet that lost only 1 ½ percent of its total weight despite having left pieces of itself, and a bullet which emerges near pristine condition. The nose and the cone of the bullet are completely intact. There is no deformity except for the base from the impact of the firing mechanism.

The government themselves conducted an experiment with the same ammunition (6.5-millimeter military ammunition) from a Mannlicher-Carcano rifle, the alleged murder weapon. They hit one rib of a goat carcass to simulate Connally’s rib fracture then shot through a human cadaver’s wrist breaking the radius to simulate Connally’s wrist fracture. Every single bullet showed substantial overwhelming deformity and those were bullets that either hit the goat’s rib or hit the radius in the cadaver. That was their experiment, which they have refused to ever repeat.

There is the acoustic evidence also. A wonderful PhD, Don Thomas, who wrote the book Hear No Evil, correlates the shots from an auditory standpoint. In 1965 I gave a paper at the American Academy of Forensic Sciences and they devoted a full day to the Warren Commission’s report that had come out in late 1964. I was asked to represent the Pathology section, so that started me on this path and here we are in 2010 coming up on a full 45 years.

I’ve been actively involved for those years, have written many papers and chapters in books, appeared on hundreds of radio and television programs, and have probably given thousands of talks on the subject. That’s the sheer absurdity of the Warren Commission’s report. The single bullet theory is a joke.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): They totally dropped the ball in the original autopsy, didn’t they?

Dr. Cyril Wecht: It was done by two pathologists, Humes and Boswell, who had never done a medical legal autopsy in their entire careers. When they were called in to testify I was a member of the House Select Committee of the Assassinations Pathology Panel, which was convened in 1977 to reinvestigate the deaths of Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King.

Humes and Boswell came in and were asked, “Did you ever do a medical legal autopsy case before you did the case on Kennedy?” They said, “No.” Can you imagine? Let’s set aside politics and feelings about the president, that’s neither here nor there. This is 1963, modern times, and this is your president. This is not Abraham Lincoln in the century before and you’re going to do this autopsy after you have illegally taken the body away from Dallas! There was no law that permitted them to do that, no law in effect that permitted them to take that body out of Dallas.

There was a competent board certified forensic pathologist there, Dr. Earl Rose, at Parkland Hospital along with the local justice of the peace ready to assume jurisdiction and perform the autopsy. Okay, so they took the body illegally and delayed the autopsy for 8 hours. But, they then called in Fink from the AFIP (Air Force Institute of Pathology) who had some limited experience mostly dealing with larger type ammunition from the Vietnam War, but who was not really a practicing forensic pathologist in terms of typical kinds of gunshot wounds and so on.

They missed a bullet hole in the neck. It wasn’t until the next day they learned that there was a bullet hole in the neck. They saw only a tracheotomy until the next morning when they talked to Dr. Perry, the lead surgeon in Dallas. A guy named Tomlinson found the “stretcher” bullet while he was trying to get to the men’s room and stretchers blocked the corridor. Nobody had seen this bullet before.

When this information was conveyed to the pathologist that night at Bethesda where the autopsy was being done, incredibly they said, “Well, when the president lay on his back and they applied pressure for cardiac massage, that pressure forced a bullet back out through the hole in the back and fell onto his clothing, then from his clothing onto a stretcher.” That was the origin of the “stretcher” bullet as of that Friday night (laughs).

The next morning (November 23) when they learned the bullet had come out of the neck, then the “stretcher” bullet was now at the front of his neck. It had gone through 6 inches of soft tissue, gone through the starched collar, got frightened to death, and just plopped down right there.

Five and a half months later when they put the single bullet theory together, that same bullet became a bullet that continued on through Kennedy, through Connally’s chest, Connally’s wrist, into Connally’s side, and came out of his left thigh. That’s why I dubbed it the “magic” bullet. It will readily accommodate you, whatever you need from it at any particular point in time and will make itself available to you.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): They didn’t keep Kennedy’s brain, did they?

Dr. Cyril Wecht: No they did not dissect the brain. We were told it was preserved. But I discovered in 1972, when I was the first non-government forensic pathologist given access to the autopsy materials at the National Archives that the president’s brain was missing. That was in August of 1972. So here we are 38 years later and nobody has officially accounted for the president’s brain.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): That’s beyond belief, isn’t it?

Dr. Cyril Wecht: Yeah, unbelievable!

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): The O.J. Simpson and JonBenet Ramsey cases appear to be similar in the fact that both crime scenes were contaminated from the very beginning.

Dr. Cyril Wecht: You’re quite right. They were contaminated and not property dealt with. In the O.J. case they never even called the medical examiner until 8 hours later and even then they didn’t have access to the scene for another hour and a half.

The bodies weren’t even seen for about 12 hours. That eliminated anything that could have been learned from determining rigor mortis, obtaining vitreous humour from in back of the eye, which can help determine time of death, and they also messed up the crime scene. Henry Lee, my good friend and colleague, found things there they missed.

They misinterpreted a footprint and there was a big bloodstain on the back of Nicole Simpson which they never even studied or took a sample of for DNA purposes. There was a biased approach to the case that came out in the trial with Mark Fuhrman and his use of the “N” word.

In the year that JonBenet died, that was the only homicide in Boulder; in the years before that there were only a couple of homicides. So they had no experience in these cases and instead of calling in trained homicide detectives from Denver and the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, they handled it locally! Remember, they got there at 6:00 in the morning and they never even found the body! It wasn’t until 7 hours later and then the coroner didn’t even come until 8:00 that night! He looked at the body for a couple of minutes at 8:30 then did an exam the next morning. In this case the time of death was even more critical.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): The father found the body.

Dr. Cyril Wecht: Yeah, her father, yeah, sure … can you imagine? Just picture this. I’m a father and a grandfather and one of my 11 grandchildren is missing. I have a pretty big house. Is there a nook, a cranny, a toilet bowl, a cupboard, or a closet that I wouldn’t look for that child? Seven hours later JonBenet’s father goes, “Oh yeah, gee, there’s my daughter in this room. We just forgot to look there.”

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): So you lean toward the father as the killer?

Dr. Cyril Wecht: Not lean toward, I stated that in my book, Who Killed JonBenet Ramsey? There was no intruder. One of my favorite lines is, “When they find the intruder in the JonBenet Ramsey case, I’ll have a full head of hair.” Another one of my favorite sayings is, “The intruder in the JonBenet Ramsey case is the same guy that worked with O.J. to kill his wife and Ron Goldman.”

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): O.J. did it?

Dr. Cyril Wecht: Yes, with someone else, though, not by himself. I definitely believe when you put together 17/18 stab wounds in one person, 21 in another, the time frame, the amount of blood that would have had to have been disbursed or disseminated, the clothing and weapon disposals, there is no way the crime could have been committed by O.J. alone.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Dr. Wecht, did you perform any autopsies on the Memorial Medical Center cases in New Orleans where the medical staff allegedly gave the elderly patients lethal injections?

Dr. Cyril Wecht: No, I didn’t perform the autopsies but I was an official consultant to the Attorney General and wrote 3 separate reports on those cases and labeled them as homicides. There is no question in my mind that they were homicides.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): So they were definitely given lethal injections?

Dr. Cyril Wecht: Oh my God, you could separate them into 10 quantities and kill 10 people. The amounts of morphine and fentanyl were huge! It wasn’t even a close call!

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How many people were given those injections?

Dr. Cyril Wecht: At least nine people. These were all people who were scheduled to be evacuated. Helicopters were there and boats were down below. They were on the 7th floor, close to the roof and the helicopters.

Every one of these patients was seriously ill. They were there as long term patients, but they could have lived weeks or months longer. It wasn’t like they were going to die in a few minutes or an hour. But, isn’t it amazing how they all died that morning between 9 and 12?

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Yeah, quite amazing. How did the feud between you and the county district attorney, Stephen A. Zappala, Jr. start?

Dr. Cyril Wecht: Well, it began with me holding open inquests on all police involved deaths, which I established as a firm, rigid policy. We had that inquisitorial power, a traditionally very strong coroner’s office, which we utilized to the fullest extent. Zappala became increasingly unhappy about me doing this and that break with him widened and widened, then finally he …

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): He filed charges against you for conducting private business work using county facilities.

Dr. Cyril Wecht: Well, he didn’t file them. He didn’t have the courage to do it himself. He sent it down to the US Attorney through an FBI agent (Brad Orsini) who came to Pittsburgh from New Jersey where he himself had been twice formally disciplined by the FBI office in Newark for a variety of charges.

Orsini had an adulterous affair with someone in his office, threatened a superior, punched holes in the wall and made homophobic remarks about other agents. But, he somehow comes to Pittsburgh and hooks up with the DA; next thing is they’re filing the 84-count indictment on January 20, 2006.

Two years later, a couple of weeks before the trial is to begin, they announce they’re dropping 43 charges after I spent all that money on attorneys to prepare for 84. We go to trial on 41 charges. It was a 7-week trial and we rest. We don’t even put on one witness. It’s a hung jury, 9-3 for acquittal on 27 counts and 6-6 on the other 14 counts.

The case goes back to the 3rd circuit and they removed the judge without even being asked to do so. These are 3 conservative republican judges on the 3rd circuit who removed this republican judge in local federal court saying that the case should be viewed with “fresh eyes.” So it was assigned to another judge, but before a ruling could be made, the government announced they were withdrawing 27 counts which left 14.

This judge wrote a 55-page scathing report on how my constitutional rights have been violated. Then in June 2009 the government announced they were withdrawing all charges with prejudice. So that was the story of that action.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You were asked to consult in the Dennis Dechaine case. Dechaine has been serving a life sentence in a Maine prison for murdering a 12-year-old girl in 1988 and his attorney has been pressing for the case to be reopened.

Dr. Cyril Wecht: Yeah, I did this pro bono for my old friend, F. Lee Bailey, who has somehow got involved in the case. I assume he’s a friend of Dechaine’s attorney. There was a huge article about it in the Waterville Sentinel, discussing the case and commenting on my opinion, along with a photo of me and of another forensic pathologist, Dr. Walter Hofman, who concurred with me.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I believe you said Dechaine could not have committed the murder because he was not there at the time.

Dr. Cyril Wecht: It has to do with the timing, exactly.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Will that finding be enough to reopen the case?

Dr. Cyril Wecht: It’s going to be heard by a judge later this summer and he will rule whether or not they’ll have a full post conviction hearing.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How long is rigor mortis usually present?

Dr. Cyril Wecht: Rigor mortis begins to set in usually in a couple of hours and becomes pretty well fixed in 8-12 hours, remains for about another 12-24 hours, begins to break down, and generally after 36 hours it’s pretty well gone. There are some variations. Of course, in violent deaths and deaths with very hot environments rigor mortis will develop faster, and somewhat slower in colder environments.

Generally you begin to see it within a couple of hours but it’s not fixed. It doesn’t become really fixed until about 8-12 hours (usually closer to 12) and remains, but then begins to break down after another 12 hours and 24-36 hours total after death time it’s pretty well gone. Very little remains after 36 hours.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Why do pathologists sometimes differ on times of death?

Dr. Cyril Wecht: There can be honest differences of opinion within ranges. These are not rigid scientific parameters. But in the Dechaine case, it goes way beyond anything … you can’t just stretch it that far.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You are involved in studies that try to link concussions to behavioral issues. An example would be a football player suffering constant brain trauma on the field, and then displaying socially undesirable behavior off the football field.

Dr. Cyril Wecht: Yeah, we started that right here in Allegheny County when I was coroner with the first death being Mike Webster, the Pittsburgh Steeler. The question was raised, “Could his terrible behavior be related to brain injury?” In addition to recurring concussions, which are documented, he also had a very serious motorcycle accident with head injuries also. So, who knows?

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Dr. Wecht, are you working on another book now?

Dr. Cyril Wecht: Yes, as a matter of fact I am. The police book will be out and I’m working on another book. I’m going to have some fascinating cases in this book including a retiring army psychiatric physician, Colonel Philip Shue and Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones. That book will be at the publisher by the end of the year and should be out by next spring.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You’ve not written an autobiography, have you?

Dr. Cyril Wecht: Well, no, but I do want to do that. I don’t think it’s going to be some big seller, but I want to do it. I think the cases I’ve been involved in, including my own case, and the politicization of the Department of Justice is worth a book.

By the way, that bitch, US Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan, who spearheaded my case and who then left office in October of last year, cannot get a job. This is hard fact, not conjecture, and she ran in the republican primary here for the congressional seat in a republican community. She ran against an unknown, but lost in May of this year 2-1 after being US Attorney in this area for 8 years … which many people dubbed as the “Wecht referendum.”

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You had considered running for governor at one time.

Dr. Cyril Wecht: Yeah, I did, and my wife and my financial situation nixed that (laughs). I want to do what I’m doing because I enjoy it. I’m unbelievably more active than ever but I have to be, financially, because the case cost me millions of dollars.

I spent over 4 million dollars and I owe 6.6 million dollars on paper, although I don’t think they’re going to pursue me. But, it’s a matter of record that 6.6 million dollars is still owed to the law firm. So I’m deep in the hole.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): There is no way to recover that money even though you were acquitted?

Dr. Cyril Wecht: No, but that’s a good question. We looked into it, but the federal regulations are so … you have to show quite literally video and auditory documentation that people sat in a room and said, “We’re going to get Wecht. We’re going to fuck him over.” If you don’t have that, forget about it. I didn’t have the time, energy, or money to pursue that. I wanted to, believe me, but I just couldn’t do it.

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