On November 29, 1963, seven days after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, his successor, Lyndon Johnson, convened a high-level commission to examine the evidence and discover the truth about the tragic incident.
After nearly a year of investigation that included the testimony of hundreds of witnesses, the deliberative body, chaired by Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, released a 26-volume, 888-page report that concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone and that a single bullet killed the popular young president and wounded Texas Gov. John Connally.
The report was controversial from the beginning, but what put it back in the crosshairs – and in the media – was a paper presented at the 1965 convention of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS) by an assistant district attorney and medical-legal adviser from Allegheny County, Pennsylvania.
There was no lone gunman, the paper’s author, Dr. Cyril H. Wecht, maintained, and no magic bullet either. The autopsy was sloppy and the people brought in as experts had little idea of what they were doing.
Wecht’s first foray into the world of celebrity forensics was far from his last. Now one of the world’s foremost pathologists, he has examined, consulted on, or served as an expert commentator on many of the most challenging and high-profile deaths of the past half century. He has frequently appeared on national TV programs including Dateline NBC, 48 Hours Mystery, 20/20, and On the Record with Greta Van Susteren.
In 2000, he founded and endowed the Cyril H. Wecht Institute of Forensic Science and Law, an internationally acclaimed center for research, training, and professional education in applied forensic science, at Duquesne University’s School of Law. The institute is an essential part of the university’s online Post-Master’s Certificate in Forensic Nursing program.
Though outspoken and opinionated, Wecht is a hero in western Pennsylvania, both for his professional accomplishments and his years of public service.
Born March 20, 1931, to Eastern European immigrants in a tiny Pennsylvania mining town, Wecht attended high school and university in Pittsburgh, receiving his B.S., M.D., and LL.B degrees. After earning his J.D from the University of Maryland and serving in the U.S. Air Force, he returned to Pittsburgh, working at a hospital before becoming deputy coroner in 1965. He was elected coroner four years later and served two additional terms, the most recent one ending in 2006.
Over the course of his career, he has performed some 20,000 autopsies and consulted on tens of thousands more. He served as chief coroner for the state of Pennsylvania and on the Allegheny County Board of Commissioners but lost a bid for the U.S. Senate in 1982. He also has been president of both the American College of Legal Medicine and the American Academy of Forensic Sciences and operates his own private forensic pathology practice in Pittsburgh.
But he was relatively new in his career when he was asked to present the paper about Kennedy at the AAFS meeting. Wecht combed through the entire report, becoming increasingly incensed with how the forensic examination had been handled.
“The inadequate autopsy was the most disturbing, the fact that it had been performed by two pathologists at Bethesda Naval Hospital who had no training or experience in forensic pathology whatsoever,” he told the Beaver County Times in a 1989 interview.
“Just think about that: The president of the United States, 1963, dead as a result of gunshot wounds, multiple wounds of entrance and exit. So you’ve got to determine how many shots, from what angle, from what range, what was the trajectory, what were the wounds of entrance, what were the wounds of exit, what weapons were used, was there more than one shooter? So to answer these questions, they bring in two guys who had never done a gunshot case in their lives. Can you believe that?”
In 1972, he became the first civilian allowed access to the Kennedy autopsy materials. That’s when he discovered that part of the former president’s brain was missing – which put him back in the limelight. His criticism of the official theory and the poor handling of the forensics eventually brought him to the attention of movie producer Oliver Stone, who brought Wecht on as a consultant for his 1991 blockbuster conspiracy film, JFK.
Never shy about speaking out, Wecht increasingly found himself in demand as a media source and consultant. In 1979, the TV show 20/20 asked him to examine Elvis Presley’s autopsy records. Earlier autopsy results indicated Presley might have succumbed to cardiovascular disease. Wecht’s conclusion: The King was a drug addict and died of an overdose.
The JonBenet Ramsey case? Her father did it, but her death was likely accidental.
O.J. Simpson? Wecht, an expert commentator on the case for national TV news outlets, told the Albany Times Union that Simpson was probably guilty, “but he could not have done it alone. He had help. There was so much evidence at that terrible scene in so many different places.”
Wecht shares forensic details behind other celebrity slayings in his books, including A Question of Murder, Tales from the Morgue, Mortal Evidence, Who Killed JonBenet Ramsey?, Grave Secrets, and Cause of Death. He also has authored hundreds of professional publications.
More recently, Wecht has weighed in on the case of Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teen fatally shot by a Ferguson, MO, police officer in 2014 (Wecht called the officer’s defense scenario “absurd”), and medical marijuana legalization efforts (he’s for it).
Just as the JFK assassination first brought Wecht into the public eye in the 1960s, the O.J. Simpson murder case spurred him to invest in advanced medical-legal education.
“The year 2000 was the year that Cyril Wecht endowed the law school with the Cyril H. Wecht Institute of Forensic Science and Law,” said L. Kathleen Sekula, professor at the Duquesne School of Nursing and developer of one of the first master’s of science programs to offer a specialty in forensic nursing. “The impetus for him was the O.J. Simpson trial – that lawyers did not understand forensic science and the forensic scientists who testified and were involved in the case didn’t understand law. That’s making it really simplistic, but that was how the Wecht Institute started.”
The institute, which works closely with the university’s online Post-Master’s Certificate in Forensic Nursing program, features courses in law, science, and philosophy as well as forensic chemistry, American legal history, firearms, and forensic investigation.
Highly ranked on U.S. News and World Report’s 2017 Best Online Graduate Nursing Programs list, Duquesne University’s online Post-Master’s Certificate in Forensic Nursing offers students to opportunity to apply the law and forensic science to nursing practice. Graduates may find themselves in positions to influence court decisions, affect health care policy, or assist patients with complex cases toward recovery.