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Cyril Wecht, pathologist who backed JFK conspiracy theory, dies at 93

Noted defense lawyer F. Lee Bailey called Dr. Wecht the “single most important spearhead of challenge” to the Warren report.

By Associated Press


Dr. Cyril Wecht in 1975. (Charles Bennett/AP)


Cyril Wecht, a pathologist and lawyer whose controversial positions on high-profile deaths such as President John F. Kennedy’s 1963 assassination caught the attention of prosecutors and TV viewers alike, died May 13 at 93.


The Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts confirmed the death but did not provide further details.


Dr. Wecht’s rise to fame began in 1964, three years after he reentered civilian life after serving a brief stint at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Ala. At the time, he was serving as an assistant district attorney in Allegheny County and was a pathologist in a Pittsburgh hospital.


The request came from a group of forensic scientists: review the Warren Commission’s report, which concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone, assassinated Kennedy. And Dr. Wecht, with his usual thoroughness, did just that — the beginning of what became a lifelong obsession to prove his theory that there was more than one shooter involved in the killing.


After reviewing the autopsy documents, discovering the president’s brain had gone missing and viewing an amateur video of the assassination, Dr. Wecht concluded the commission’s findings that there was a single bullet involved in the attack that killed Kennedy and injured Texas Gov. John Connally were “absolute nonsense.”


Dr. Wecht’s lecture circuit demonstration detailing his theory that it was impossible for one bullet to cause the damage it did on that November day in Dallas made its way into Oliver Stone’s movie “JFK” (1991) in the courtroom scene showing the path of the “magic bullet.”

Noted defense lawyer F. Lee Bailey called Dr. Wecht the “single most important spearhead of challenge” to the Warren report. Dr. Wecht’s verbal sparring with future U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, a staffer on the commission, also became well known, culminating in an accusation in his book “Cause of Death” that the politician’s support of the single-bullet theory was “an asinine, pseudoscientific sham at best.”


Yet, Dr. Wecht and Specter overcame their differences and developed something of a friendship, with the senator coming to the pathologist’s defense during a grueling, five-year legal battle that sapped him of much of his life’s savings before it ended in 2009.


In the end, Dr. Wecht emerged victorious in that, as well when legal maneuvers and judicial decisions forced prosecutors to drop all fraud and theft charges against him in a case that revolved around accusations that he had used his public post as Allegheny County medical examiner to further his multimillion-dollar private practice.


Dr. Wecht’s outspokenness on the Kennedy assassination, and the publicity he generated, later made him a go-to pathologist on dozens of other high-profile cases ranging from Elvis Presley to JonBenét Ramsey, the child beauty queen whose death remains unsolved.


At the homicide trial of school head Jean Harris, accused of murdering the “Scarsdale Diet” creator Herman Tarnower, Dr. Wecht testified unsuccessfully for the defense. His testimony at the trial of Claus von Bülow may have helped acquit Von Bülow of charges that he tried to kill his millionaire wife, Sunny.


After studying Presley’s autopsy report, Dr. Wecht concluded, and shared his findings on national television, that the King of Rock had probably died of an overdose, not heart disease. His findings spurred Tennessee officials to reopen the case in 1994, though, in the end, the official cause of death remained unchanged.


In the months preceding the O.J. Simpson homicide trial in 1994, Dr. Wecht was a frequent talk show guest, conjecturing on the “Today” show and “Good Morning America” about the significance of blood samples and other evidence. When Michael Jackson died in 2009, Dr. Wecht again took to the airwaves, discussing the deadly mix of drugs and sedatives that killed the King of Pop.


Dr. Wecht detailed many of his cases in six books.


Cyril Harrison Wecht was born in Bobtown, Pa., to Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe on March 20, 1931. His father ran a neighborhood grocery store in Pittsburgh.

At the University of Pittsburgh, he received undergraduate, medical and law degrees. He also was a graduate of the University of Maryland law school.


He served two stints as Allegheny County’s coroner, ending his second in 2006, when he resigned after being indicted with fraud and theft charges.


His first term, from 1970 to 1980, was also fraught. Then, too, he was accused of using county morgue facilities for his private forensic business while coroner. He paid $200,000 in restitution following a lengthy legal fight. He also served a four-year term as an Allegheny County commissioner.


In 1982, he made an unsuccessful run for U.S. Senate as a Democrat against Republican incumbent John Heinz III.


In 1961, Dr. Wecht married Sigrid Ronsdal, and they have four children. A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.


This article was originally published in The Washington Post.

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