A Nov. 29 article about Cyril Wecht, coroner in Pennsylvania's Allegheny County, and a drive to make his job an appointive position should have noted that he is a doctor with American Board of Pathology certification. (Published 12/6/02)
Cyril Wecht is perhaps the nation's most prominent coroner, having consulted on cases ranging from the Kennedy assassinations to Elvis's death to the murder of Chandra Levy.
Now, a petition drive is calling for his office to be replaced with an appointed medical examiner. Wecht is firing back and believes his office should remain elected and independent.
Coroners are typically elected and generally not required to have medical training. Medical examiners are trained doctors and usually appointed.
Advocates of the change in Wecht's post -- including the Allegheny County chief executive, a political rival of Wecht -- say making the position an appointment would help ensure someone who is medically trained gets the job.
"If you look around the country, most large cities are now using a medical examiner, and for a very good reason, in order to ensure they have the most qualified individual," said Jim Roddey, the county's chief executive.
Most states have a mix. Nine states have only county coroners, while two states -- Michigan and Nevada -- use only county medical examiners, according to the Division of Public Health Surveillance at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Roddey, a Republican, said he would appoint Wecht, a Democrat, if voters approve the change in Pennsylvania's second-largest political jurisdiction, "but Cyril won't always be there."
Wecht, 71, would apparently keep his job, but he has defended his title and autonomy with his own petition drive. He and his staff contend it is among the safeguards against political patronage.
"Whoever might be appointing this position could have a friend or ally that could say, 'Let's not investigate this death or do an autopsy.' . . . That is not what Allegheny County or any other county needs," said Joe Dominick, chief deputy coroner.
But advocates for the change say coroners are not policymakers and shouldn't be elected.
"There is no Democratic or Republican way to perform an autopsy," said Dwight Howes, general counsel for Citizens for Democratic Reform.