Wecht discusses forensic challenge of cold cases
PITTSBURGH — Forensic pathologist Dr. Cyril Wecht scientifically questions everything that may be involved as part of a forensic investigation needed to potentially solve a cold case.
Objectivity, he said, is the key to any coroner’s investigation.
“You’ve got to be made to understand that you are a scientist,” he said. “You are not there for the prosecution or defense. In a civil case, you are not there for the plaintiff or the defendant. There is nothing wrong with arriving at opinions, being a strong adversary. I’m not suggesting you play Mr. Wimp. Once you arrive at your opinions and conclusions, be prepared to explain and to defend them in a very hard fashion. You have to maintain objectivity in your approach initially to the case, your methodology and your analysis,” Wecht said.
The world-famous pathologist has worked on numerous cases in his career, from those that have made headlines to those quiet tragedies known only in the areas in which they occurred.
A former Allegheny County Coroner, Wecht still consults on most cases throughout the region involving an untimely death or murder.
He has written books and scores of articles about pathology.
Large posters of President John F. Kennedy adorn the walls of Wecht’s downtown office. Though an arrest was made, Wecht considers the Kennedy assassination the ultimate cold case. He questions the evidence, how the investigation was handled and the autopsy results. He doesn’t accept the Warren Commission’s report that put forth the “magic bullet” theory.
“If you go with the Kennedy case and the Warren Commission report, then it is not a cold case,” he said. “But 85 percent of the American public feel that it is a cold case because when they say they don’t believe Lee Harvey Oswald did it, that he was the sole assassin. That makes it a cold case.”
Wecht described the Kennedy cold case as the hardest he has ever studied. That’s saying something coming from a man who has performed thousands of autopsies and consulted on high-profile cases.
Wecht wonders how a bullet wound moved four inches up Kennedy’s skull a few years after the original examination of the body.
He questions the government’s evidence, such as why Kennedy’s brain is missing.
“I would say the Kennedy case is the hardest because the federal government is involved. Have they lied, destroyed and hidden evidence? I don’t know,” he said. “The president’s brain — is it destroyed or is it hidden? I don’t know. Photographs, X-rays and slides are missing. Destroyed or hidden? You come up against a stone wall,” he said.
Wecht questions the Warren Commission’s findings from 1964 and the U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark’s panel report from 1968 because the bullet hole in Kennedy’s head moved four inches.
“Who was right?” he asked. “Were they right with the body in front of them in 1963 or was the Ramsay Clark panel right in 1968? Who’s right? What difference does it make? It makes all the difference in the world. Where did the shot come from? That’s why it is the most difficult case.”
The lessons applied to Kennedy’s death can be applied to other cold cases.
He said the key is to question everything with an open mind, not just accept the facts as presented.
“There may be official reports and documents,” he said.
“There may be someone who said it wasn’t a cold case, that we have the answer and we know this and that. But if you are going to look at this as a cold case, let me stress this: You’ve got to go back in and look at it with an open mind and with objectivity and not be influenced, directed or controlled consciously or subconsciously by what others have included. I don’t mean that you ignore it. It’s all part of what you need to review, but you must consider everything,” said Wecht.
His methodology dictates that there be no stone left unturned. He said in order to solve cold cases, it may be necessary to look at all records and reports generated by the case. Those records would include whether an autopsy was done and who conducted it, studying photographs of the scene where the body was found, reviewing the hospital records and paramedic accounts.
“You have to look at everything as if you were just starting from scratch,” he said.
Wecht contends that time may be a mixed blessing to solving cold cases. He said modern techniques such as DNA testing or advances in analyzing shell fragments offer investigators more tools to pursue these cases. However, Wecht said, mistakes made in the past may make the present investigation harder.
That can make cold cases very hard to solve.
Wecht recalled a case where a pathologist concluded that because the police found blood, a murder must have taken place. He said there could be any number of reasons for the blood that didn’t involve a murder. He said instead of being objective and questioning the evidence, the pathologist’s report was biased toward the prosecution.
Wecht considered the broad picture of how a criminal investigation can be affected by an investigator’s bias, malevolence and other factors.
“Do you think that is a total aberration of an infinitesimally small percentage, or do you think that maybe it is the tip of an iceberg?” he asked.
Wecht said he is fine with describing himself as a medical detective who seeks answers as part of an investigation, but he draws a line at how television has given people the wrong perception about pathologists and coroners.
“I don’t mind that phrase, but the thing I don’t like about it is that it goes hand-in-hand with something I do abhor, which is that the television programs have made forensic pathologists into homicide detectives,” he said.
“We should not be and are not part of the prosecutor’s team. (Forensic pathologists) are part of the forensic scientific community, and they should function as scientists objectively, detached and independent. We are not Jack Klugman playing ‘Quincy’ on television. We do not go and interrogate people. We tell you when, where and how.”
Infant or child deaths, or brutal murders — those are the hardest things to deal with as it would be for any human being, Wecht said.
“It makes you so sad and makes you wonder what life is all about, who’s in charge and where’s God,” he said.
But there is a silver lining to solving tragic cases.
“It is rewarding, more pleasant when you can answer questions and help a family gain closure,” Wecht said.