Book Review: ‘The Life and Deaths of Cyril Wecht,’ and the Perils of Politicized Prosecution

“Celebrity coroner.”

Those two words don’t seem to go together. The one thing we’re all assured is that, whatever we’ve amassed in this world, whether it’s a simple day job or a global empire, a life of obscurity or a life of celebrity, we can’t take it with us. 

The demise of the famous, however, unlike the rest of us, is investigated and the truth of the matter is sought in the public glare. That’s where forensic pathologists come in and some become famous. Cyril Wecht, a renowned forensic pathologist for more than 60 years, has worked on multiple cases involving celebrities who made headlines throughout their lives and afterward. 

While providing his expertise on cases including the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy, the death of Elvis Presley, the O.J. Simpson murder case, the death of Mary Jo Kopechne, and the unsolved murder of JonBenét Ramsey, Wecht became a celebrity coroner just by dint of the work he performed. The books he has written about the cases on which he has worked and helped to solve have made him a major authority in the true-crime world. 

Wecht’s celebrity has made him a well-known medical examiner, professor, and expert witness — and, according to his latest book, The Life and Deaths of Cyril Wecht: Memoirs of America’s Most Controversial Forensic Pathologist, co-authored with writer and filmmaker Jeff Sewald, it also made him a target. 

The crime-solver has stood accused of numerous crimes himself, and it would take all his might, wits, and resources to fight back. 

Wecht tells the story of running headlong into Allegheny County (Pennsylvania) District Attorney Stephen Zappala. Though both Wecht and Zappala are liberal Democrats, Wecht writes that Zappala sought to consolidate power and orchestrated a federal felony case against him that then-U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania, Mary Beth Buchanan, a Republican, took up to burnish her own credentials and speed her path higher up in the U.S. Department of Justice. 

The case against Wecht, brought to indictment and then trial in 2006, was a blockbuster. It made national headlines with news stories featuring accusations of sensational criminal behavior. Wecht faced 84 federal counts from the off, including the accusation that he had traded cadavers with a university in exchange for lab access. That appalling allegation, stacked atop the 83 other charges including corruption in his public office as Allegheny County medical examiner, made for a damning case against Wecht, who was 72 at the time and a national figure with a sterling, if controversial, professional reputation. That reputation, his medical license, and his personal freedom were on the line.

As he relates the details of the case against him, Wecht delves into the politics and says outright that he believes he was prosecuted because of Zappala’s ambitions on one hand, and party politics on the other. The book serves up his viewpoint on that, which the reader is invited to judge for themselves. If it’s true, then without regard for the party particulars, he paints a disturbing picture that we all should heed: If you happen to be in some ambitious person’s or group’s way, no matter how professional or even kind you have been in the past, no matter your political affiliations, no matter your achievements or accolades, if that person or group has access to power and no scruples about using it against you, you’re in for the fight of your life. Wecht, the famous coroner, professor, and true-crime author was in such a fight, for three long years.

The case against him fell apart, mainly because he chose to fight back and had the experience and the resources to do so. Wecht wrote The Life and Deaths of Cyril Wecht to explode the sensational headlines and take readers inside the star chamber he says he faced. Wecht delivers the twists and turns of his own case and his fight as you would expect a great-true crime author would, with a clear and brisk narrative that makes Life and Deaths a gripping page-turner. 

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