Assistant DAs out of inquests
Prosecutors in District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr.’s office will no longer participate in open coroner’s inquests, Allegheny County Coroner Dr. Cyril H. Wecht said Wednesday.
The decision comes after Wecht’s and Zappala’s offices disagreed about whether criminal charges should be filed in recent high-profile cases.
Wecht and Zappala’s office indicated yesterday it was a mutual decision to end the decades-old, voluntary practice of having an assistant district attorney function as the prosecutor at open inquests.
“There’s nothing at all that’s the least bit hostile or unpleasant about this,” Wecht said. “It is a mutually arrived-at decision.”
Mike Manko, Zappala’s spokesman, said “the decision was indeed mutual,” and that Zappala will discuss the matter at a news conference today.
Open inquests are investigations into the manner and cause of death. A hearing officer presides and hears testimony. Based on the officer’s recommendation, the coroner decides whether criminal or negligent behavior contributed to the death. The coroner can recommend criminal charges, but the district attorney decides whether to file them.
Following an inquest into the death of University of Pittsburgh football player Billy Gaines, Deputy Coroner Timothy G. Uhrich dropped the involuntary manslaughter charge against the Rev. Henry Krawczyk.
Zappala then had involuntary manslaughter charges re-filed against the priest, who is accused of supplying the 19-year-old with liquor just before he fell to his death at St. Anne Church, Homestead, in June.
In the 2002 death of iron worker Paul Corsi Jr. at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Wecht’s office recommended involuntary manslaughter charges against the Dick Corp. construction firm. Zappala decided 18 months later not to file charges.
Decisions by Zappala are still pending on two other politically sensitive cases in which Wecht’s office recommended that police officers be criminally charged in the deaths of two black men.
Wecht recommended in July that Mt. Oliver police officers be charged with homicide in the December death of Charles Dixon, 43, of Altoona, who was smothered during his arrest. Wecht made the same recommendation March 13 against a Pittsburgh Housing Authority police officer involved in the Nov. 15 shooting death of Bernard Rogers, 26, of the Hill District.
Wecht ruled police used unnecessary force in both cases.
Wecht said the Krawczyk and Corsi cases did cause him to “focus attention” on problems arising from having the district attorney’s and coroner’s offices closely involved in the same proceedings. He said he has long been aware that the arrangement is “awkward and clumsy from a legal standpoint.”
For example, that system can lead to having an assistant district attorney argue for criminal charges at an inquest, only to have his boss decide later not to file charges.
Wecht said that Uhrich, who usually presides over inquests, will likely take over the prosecutorial role, at least temporarily. Wecht already has recruited a corps of lawyers and judges to serve as unpaid hearing officers at some inquests, and he said he will count on those volunteers to take over for Uhrich in all inquests for now.
That means, he said, no added cost to taxpayers.
Allegheny County defense attorney Patrick J. Thomassey said the old system has worked well for the 30 years he has been handling cases here.
“I think it’s a good system, and I think it should stay in place,” Thomassey said.
He said assistant district attorneys have the experience to handle criminal cases, and that having a coroner’s employee prosecute could stack the deck against the defense.
Wecht said the decision is effective as of the next scheduled inquest, which is to be held Friday.