Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Cyril Wecht: Forensic Pathologist

The Wecht Institute

Wecht Institute logo
Wecht Institute logo

Even as Wecht consults on cases from around the country, he has been involved in developing a specialized institute named for him.

Established at the Duquesne University School of Law in the fall of 2000, the Cyril H. Wecht Institute of Forensic Science and Law collaborates with the University's schools of Law, Nursing, Natural and Environmental Sciences, Pharmacy and Liberal Arts to offer both graduate degree and professional certificate programs in forensic science and law—with more applications forthcoming.

Duquesne University Law School entrance
Duquesne University Law School

Ben Wecht is manager of program development and communication. He believes there are two clear distinguishing factors that make the Institute stand apart from any others in the country. "First," he says, "we incorporate portions of the law school curriculum and utilize many of its faculty. Second, between these professors, members of our Advisory Board, and various professionals from the Pittsburgh region and beyond, we have a very strong faculty."

Many are involved in the coroner's office or the forensic science lab and have personal or professional relationships with Dr. Wecht. They have broad-ranging experience in coordinating the various aspects of investigation and in interpreting evidence in a legal context.

Ben Wecht (l), John Rago & Cyril Wecht
Ben Wecht (l), John Rago & Cyril Wecht

The aim of the Institute, says Ben Wecht, is to prepare people for interaction with the legalsystem. They hope to show professionals from the various disciplines the value of a coordinated multidisciplinary approach for solving crimes and discovering the truth. The more each person understands about what the other disciplines do, the better off everyone involved will be.

The idea for the Institute was spawned within the law school shortly after they had put on a conference in 1995 about law and forensic science. John Rago, J.D., associate dean and professor of law at Duquesne, and now also director of the Wecht Institute, recalls how it first became clear. "Cyril and I were sitting around drinking iced tea," he says, "and he was telling me about something he had done. I said, 'It's a shame we don't do more of that,' and he said, 'Why don't we create something?' It was a spontaneous, unplanned conception. We wanted to develop a collaborative project that would bring institutions together in a way that would complement rather than compete with one another."

Rago is concerned that people tend to misunderstand the notion of "forensic" as it has been applied to various disciplines. "When you use the word, 'forensic,' to me it's like the way we used to think of Swiss bank accounts. It conjures up some mysterious images. People need to demystify the word. 'Forensic' is just a methodology for seeking truth in family, civil and criminal matters. Science pushes us to find the best methods we can."

Dr. Rago teaching
Dr. Rago teaching

He points out that forensic science and law is an old union of intellectual disciplines that has recently been rediscovered, and the development of the Institute is a way to capitalize on that for the enhancement of knowledge and methods. "If I had to loosely define what we at the Wecht Institute do, I'd say that our mission has been to create an orchestrated collision of disciplines. As a lawyer, I have a lot to learn from nursing professionals, accountants, and social scientists, for example. It's about broadening our education. Forensic science is a lifelong pursuit, like practicing law. There's always something to learn, so we need a multi-disciplinary approach. At the Wecht Institute, we hope to get young people interested in this idea so they can take it further."

His concern is for the people most at risk in society: children, the elderly, and women. "They're all served by this branch of study. The law gives us the humanity, the condition in which the sciences can play a role. Helping the family or society through the vehicle of law gives the scientific practices meaning."

Toward that end, the Institute offers a five-year, entry-level Master's in Forensic Science and Law, with a curriculum designed to accommodate graduating high-school seniors interested in pursuing careers as forensic scientists.

Dr. Frederick Fochtman
Dr. Frederick Fochtman

"We started the program three years ago," says its director, Dr. Frederick Fochtman, who also directs the forensic science lab as chief toxicologist at the Alleghany County Coroner's Office and is a professor of pharmacology. "We had planned for a maximum of about fifty to sixty students over five years. In our third year we now have 150 students. The program features forensic science and law and therefore is somewhat unique. it was also built from the bottom up with a very rigorous science component on the front end, and with classes on the law taught by law school faculty throughout."

In addition to all of that, the Institute offers a certificate program for professionals who wish to serve as adjuncts to the legal system, which convenes on Saturday mornings over a nine-month period.

In keeping with the idea of a "collision of disciplines," the Institute also integrates with the nursing program to develop directions in forensic nursing.

Dr. L. Kathleen Sekula
Dr. L. Kathleen Sekula

"The School of Nursing at Duquesne University joined the efforts of the Wecht Institute in June 2002," says Dr. L. Kathleen Sekula, director of that program, "by creating a master's program in forensic nursing and a post-master's certificate. Forensic nursing is gaining national and international attention as one of the newest specialty areas in the field. While nurses have long performed duties that interface with the legal community, it is only in recent years that leaders in the nursing community have identified a specialty area of practice that brings together components of nursing, health care, and law to serve victims of violence (or the perpetrator) who present in a medical/nursing setting."

She points out that forensic nurses practice in a variety of settings and roles. "The sexual assault nurse examiner (SANE) is the most widely recognized role in forensic practice and is responsible for forensic nursing first becoming recognized for its unique role. However, the discipline has expanded to include the advance practice forensic nurse who functions as an expert within the health care settings and serves as a resource for care of victims of violence, evidence collection and preservation, education and research, as well as community advocacy."

In collaboration with the University's A.J. Palumbo School of Business Administration, the Wecht Institute will also deliver part of the curriculum in the forensic track of the new Master's of Accountancy program, which begins in the summer of 2004.

And in its first off-campus academic partnership, the Institute is now collaborating with Pittsburgh's Carlow College to offer Forensic Medical and Legal Investigations: The Post-Mortem Examination, a program that combines a BS degree in biology with certification as an autopsy specialist.

Cyril Wecht, recent photo
Cyril Wecht, recent photo

Among the Institute's strengths are its annual conferences, to which experts from a wide variety of disciplines are invited in an effort to shed light upon a particular set of issues. Past conferences have covered such topics as forensic DNA analysis and familial violence, as well as the afore-mentioned assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The fifth annual conference will take on the science and law of combating terrorism.

While the proceedings of some of these conferences will be published, the Wecht Institute is also developing a graduate-level textbook, Foundations in Forensic Science and Law: Investigative Evidence in Criminal, Civil and Family Law.

And speaking of books, Cyril Wecht will continue to produce more collections of cases like those that have made him popular with the true crime audience.

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