Friday, September 28, 2012

Breaking the Habit

The thing I enjoy most about my job is the people.  Even when I complain about them, I still enjoy them. 

You see, I get to work with lawyers, judges, doctors, accountants, medical examiners, cops, scientific experts, suburban housewives, derelict dads, thieves, murderers, rapists, neglectful mothers, child abusers, and con artists.

And that's just in one week.

Many of my cases involve a cooperating witness.  This is someone who is either part of the crime and agrees to testify against the other participants or someone who knows about the crime and agrees to testify in exchange for a deal on their case (think jail house informants).

They all come with their own baggage.  You can read here for a discussion on that.  It's just the cost of doing criminal business.  Criminals witness homicides at a far greater rate than suburban grocery store managers. 

I usually find the cooperators entertaining and intelligent.  It surprises me every time.  I get the feeling that if they were to direct their energies outside the criminal world, they would be a productive society member.

But then there are the other ones.  Like this female who was going to testify against her brother in two horrific assaults and attempted murders.  This girl, call her Jasmine, liked to steal.  Purses from a store, cash from a register where she worked, or credit cards from a community center where she was doing her court-ordered volunteer work.  She really didn't have qualms about the place as long as it had something of value.  She had been in jail for the four months while I was meeting with her.  It was at our last meeting, the one I told her that the defendant pleaded guilty and the case was over, that she told me she was pregnant.

She wanted to get out of jail with a time served sentence.  She was terrified of having the baby in jail.  She didn't want probation with a new baby.  The baby would be the impetus to turn her life around.  The judge obliged with a time served sentence.  Jasmine went on her way to turn her life around.  We were confident we would never cross paths again.  Well, she was confident.  I was hopeful, not confident.

Until I saw the wanted posters.  Apparently, Jasmine was on video stealing thousands of dollars from a few different stores in the last month and the police were asking help in finding her.  Apparently, I'll be seeing Jasmine sooner than we anticipated.  I already know her reasoning - it was for the baby.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

K2 - Synthetic Marijuana

We're seeing an increase in synthetic marijuana use, synthetic marijuana deaths, and mental illnesses related to the drug.  In one of my new cases, the defendant is going to claim he was insane at the time he murdered another man because he smoked so much of it.

I'm trying to do my research.  Don't know about it?

Check out how an insanity case works here.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Dying Declarations

Hearsay is not admissible evidence at a trial.  Unless, of course, it is admissible evidence.  I've discussed a little bit about hearsay before in terms of the right to confront witnesses against you.  I wanted to discuss dying declarations in light of my last post about the murder of Maria Rudolph.

In that Illinois case, a key piece of evidence was a deathbed confession of the murderer's mother.  She told her daughter that she knew her son killed Maria and that she had lied to the police to cover for him back in 1957.

It's a great jumping off point to re-open an investigation.  But how exactly can this statement come into evidence at trial?

The problem with hearsay is the inability of a jury to judge the credibility of the person who said the statement.  The person who said it is not called at trial and thus not exposed to cross-examination.  Anyone can make something up.  I can say that my brother told me he broke the window with a bb gun when we were kids.  But should he really get in trouble for this because of my hearsay testimony?  (Note:  I broke the window and confessed to my parents a few years ago).

So the rule is that hearsay is inadmissible, unless there is an exception.  A dying declaration is one exception.  A dying declaration is when a person identifies their killer under the belief they are dying.  The belief is that a person is more likely to tell the truth under the psychological pressure of imminent death and the fact they are about to meet their maker.  There are certain criteria that must be met for that type of statement to be admissible:

Under the Federal Rules of Evidence:
1) The declarant must be unavailable to testify (due to his/her actual death most likely),
2) the prosecution must be for a homicide or in a civil case,
3) the declarant (person injured) must believe their death is imminent when they make the statement, and
4) the statement must be about the cause of the death (who did it) or its circumstances.

In New York State:
1) The declarant must be unavailable to testify because he died due to the action,
2) the prosecution must be for a homicide case,
3) the declarant must believe their death is imminent when they make the statement, and
4) the statement must be about the cause of death or its circumstances.

The main difference between New York rules and the federal rules is that in New York, the victim must actually die before the statement is admissible.  Under the federal rules, the victim must be unavailable, but does not have to die as a result of the injury inflicted.

Are you seeing the problem with the Maria Rudolph case?  The defendant's mother made a dying declaration about her own lies and knowledge that her son committed a murder.  The statement was not about her own death (she did not die by homicide).  It is not a dying declaration under the law.  The question becomes how did this statement make it into evidence at a trial?  The first part, that her son did it seems to be speculation.  The second part that she lied to cover for him is definitely hearsay.

One of the most important jobs a lawyer has is to figure out how to get crucial evidence into the trial.  Good trial lawyers usually have two or three ways to get the evidence in.  But this one has escaped me. I don't see any way this testimony should have made its way into the trial.  It might be considered an admission, meaning where one of the parties in litigation makes a statement to their detriment.  But it doesn't seem like it because mom wasn't relating what she was told by her son, only her involvement.

Hearsay also acts like the childhood game telephone.  This is where a group of kids sit in a circle.  One child whispers a statement to another child and that statement is repeated to each successive child.  Once it gets back to the original child, the statement has always morphed into something else.  It's the same danger with hearsay upon hearsay.  There is a legitimate fear that the more links in the hearsay chain, the greater the chance to distort the original statement. 

Obviously, I only possess the media reports about the case so there is most likely details I am not privy to.  But if these details are the true facts, I don't see how mom's deathbed statement came into evidence.

Friday, September 21, 2012

The Coldest of Cases - Maria Rudolph

Just about 55 years passed since seven year old Maria Rudolph vanished from her Illinois street while playing with a friend.  And now, former police officer, 72 year old Jack McCullough A/K/A Jack Tessier stands convicted of it.

In all of the cold cases I've seen or been a part of, there is a pattern.  First the police investigate the case and develop a list of suspects.  No one can identify the killer or there's simply not enough to charge the person, but the police still have their suspicions.  The police collect physical evidence from the crime scene and bring it to a lab, where it sits.  It waits for the advent of DNA technology and then for DNA technology to improve.  Then, it waits for a government grant to fund the testing of all those old cold case materials.  Then, it waits for an interested cop or a determined victim's family to push the re-opening of the investigation.

The items of evidence are tested and a DNA sample is found on sheets, underwear, or a murder weapon.  The sample is sent to a statewide and national databank of convicted offender's DNA.  A match is uncovered and now the police have their suspect.  Sometimes it confirms their earlier suspicions and sometimes it turns the investigation in a completely new direction.

The police then interview the new suspect.  The interview runs in three stages:

1) The police ask the defendant if he was ever at the address where his DNA was found or if he knew the victim.  The suspect denies being there or knowing the victim.  The police show a picture of the item with his DNA on it and the suspect denies any knowledge of it. 

2) The police pull out the DNA report and show it to the suspect.  The suspect then says he forgot.  He was at the house before.  Or that he knew the victim.  He just forgot.  But no, he never killed her and if they had sex it was consensual.

3) The police begin going through the incriminating DNA evidence piece by piece and the suspect's story changes each time he learns about a new piece of evidence.  It changes to make everything appear innocent.

Then, he's arrested and charged with murder.  As a prosecutor, I use his DNA, the crime scene photos, and his ever-changing statements to prove my case.  That's how they most typically work.

Which is what surprised me about the Maria Rudolph case.  There was no DNA evidence.  It was based on an identification from 50 years ago and two people calling McCullough's alibi into question.  One of them was his mother, who died eight years ago.

Here is the reported proof:  Maria Rudolph and her friend were approached by a man her friend identified as "Johnny".  The friend left the two alone to grab a doll and when she came back Maria was missing.  The friend identified McCullough as the "Johnny" that approached them.  She identified him over 50 years later.  At the time, McCullough, going by Jack Tessier then, was a suspect.  But his mother provided an alibi.  Mom on her deathbed in 1994 claimed that she knew McCullough killed the girl.  Lastly, McCulllough's girlfriend at the time found an unused train ticket in his pants.  It was the train he supposedly was on that gave him his alibi.

All compelling and incriminating evidence.  But enough to sustain a murder conviction?  Especially since his mother was no longer around to tell us what she really knew?  It was enough for this Illinois judge who found then 17-year-old McCullough guilty of murdering and kidnapping Maria Rudolph whose body was missing for five months in 1955.  McCullough waived his right to a jury trial and allowed a judge to decide the case.  I wonder if the result would have been different with a jury.
For more on the case, check here, here, and here.

Cold cases are extremely difficult to try.  Witnesses memories fade.  Witnesses disappear or have died.  Evidence is lost over time.  Police procedure switches.  Any cold case conviction is the result of exceptional work by the police and prosecutors.  There is no better feeling than telling a grieving family, who has waited decades for answers, that the killer has been caught.  Well, maybe the better feeling is when the killer is convicted.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Moments Before

Watch the guy in the number 12 jersey.  Pay attention also to the bartender who continues to serve him after he stumbles to the ground.

This 24 year old struck and killed a 14 year old bicyclist after leaving this bar with a .24 BAC.  No one stopped him from getting in his car or stopped serving him.

Who do you think is to blame?  The bar?  The bartender?  His friends?  Or just the driver himself?

Nights like that lead to days like this:

Monday, September 17, 2012

A College Murder

Domestic Violence is one of the most difficult crimes to prosecute.  I have successfully navigated through the prosecution waters without a stint in a domestic violence bureau.  To be honest, it's something I've avoided.  I've only handled one domestic violence case, a murder, where the husband claimed he stabbed his wife because she was going to leave him.  It was an extreme emotional disturbance defense, but the case never went to trial.  The husband killed himself in jail before the trial began.

But many of my cases are DV related.  Many of my witnesses have open DV cases.  Violations of orders of protection abound.  The issue with DV cases from a prosecution standpoint is that most of the victims want to drop the charges almost immediately.  Every DV prosecutor I know reads the paper each day hoping that one of their victims is not the latest name on the homicide list.

In Virginia last month, an especially tragic DV case went to trial.  24 year old George W. Huguely, V, was accused of killing his former girlfriend, Yeardley Love.  Both were University of Virginia lacrosse players.  Alcohol was involved, as was a history of DV related behavior for Huguely.

The murder occurred in the late evening and early morning of May 2-3, 2010.  Ms. Love died of blunt force trauma to the head, as a result of Huguely striking her head against the wall during an argument.  Huguely claimed in an interrogation that they did have an argument, but that Ms. Love's head struck the wall accidentally.  The jury disregarded this claim, in part because the force needed to cause the injuries would be much more than an accidental hit to the wall.

Huguely was drinking all day long and went to her room to confront Love.  A damning piece of evidence was an email Huguely sent her a few days before the murder that read, "I should have killed you."  The email was in response to Love's alleged infidelity.

The case brought to the surface many issues that simmer below the radar on college campuses - alcohol abuse, violence, domestic violence reporting, and restraining orders.  It all culminated in the tragic and horrific death of a beautiful young woman and the imprisonment of a young man.

DV victims deserve every bit of help that we can give them.  Women, and men, should not have to suffer through abusive relationships and feel they are imprisoned by them.  They need to see the road out and given encouragement to take it.

The problem in some cases is victims and defendants can learn to abuse the system.  Once the cycle starts, and the police report is taken, it is easy to stay in it.

Jamison Koehler just posted a link demonstrating this.  A woman calls the police during an argument with her husband.  She tells the 911 operator, "I need to have this man out of my house.  I need to have him arrested."  I don't know more about that case to discuss about it, but it shows the problem.  A simple phone call to the police can create a chain of events that leads to a husband's arrest for DV assault and him taken to jail for a period of time.  Then, the wife can show up to court and ask to drop the case.  The next time he gets drunk, is out too late with his friends, or cheats on her she'll call the police and do it again.  The threat of a DV arrest is then used as a sword, not a shield.

I'm not saying this happens in every DV case.  In fact, I'd argue this is the exception, not the rule.  But it is the same problem as wrongful convictions.  Each wrongful conviction or arrest based on false charges undermines the credibility of the entire system.  It leads to jaded prosecutors, judges, advocates, and defense attorneys.  Where the first thought should be 'how do we help this women', it can become 'is she lying?'

It's a constant struggle in the minds of a DV prosecutor.  It's a constant threat in the subconscious of every prosecutor.  I have never had a witness harmed in a case, but the thought is always there.  When a witness wants to drop the charges, we always have to ask why.  Was it a threat, bribe, a lie from the beginning, or does the person just not want to deal with it?  Every wrongful conviction and invalid arrest negatively impacts valid arrests and credible convictions.  It creates higher hurdles for the prosecution and police throughout the investigation and trial.

As for Huguely, he was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to 23 years in prison.  The jury had recommended 26, but the judge, who has the final say, imposed 23.  In New York, the jury is told not to ever think about sentencing in a case.  They cannot and do not provide a recommendation.  It shocked me when I researched this case to discover Virginia jurors do.  I like New York's system better.  Let the juries decide guilt or innocence only and let the judge decide sentencing.  

Friday, September 14, 2012

To Represent Yourself

My internet went down yesterday, which forced me to postpone today's planned post.  Here's a hint for what comes on Monday:

Another thing to look forward to Monday?  Remember when I was appointed as a special prosecutor in a different county?  Well, turns out the defendant wants to represent himself.  On Monday, the court will spend an hour questioning him to determine his capacity to do it.  I'd advise against it when the charges are robbery, burglary, kidnapping, and attempted murder.  The issue I find in defendants who wish to represent themselves is an arrogance and a perceived slight.  They eschew the advice of great attorneys because of a belief in their superior intelligence.  This will be the third time my adversary was the defendant himself in a serious case.

It usually happens when the defendant is unhappy with a court procedure, or a perceived miscarriage of justice.  They are upset the bail was not lowered, suppression was denied, or they now say they wanted to testify in the grand jury.  Their attorney tells them that what happened was legally correct, but they refuse to believe it.  In my last experiences, the defendant has focused so much on the issues that are unimportant to a trial that they've walked themselves into a conviction.  Although the evidence in those cases was overwhelming too. 

It will be an interesting way to start the week.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Decline to Prosecute

It's no secret that I was born in the Bronx.  Well, my legal career was.  My infancy was in the Bronx DA office, criminal court bureau.  There was three weeks of training and then we were thrown into a frenzy of misdemeanor activity.  We can call that the toddler stage.  I transformed from neophyte to an adequate attorney, eventually becoming competent.  Grand jury, vehicular crimes, and felony trials were adolescence.

Complaint room, arraignments, MCP, Part 20, 30, 40, 50.  These were my daily assignments.  The Bronx DA office and surrounding courts were open 365 days a year from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m.  It's not your typical court which mixes perfectly with your atypical area.

I started with 45 colleagues and joined a group of 400 ADAs to prosecute crime in a population of 1.4 million people.  That means one ADA for every 3,500 people (compare that to my current county where there is one ADA for every 10,300 people).  Why so many ADAs?  The Bronx sees more violent crime than any other county (despite huge reductions over the last two decades) and also has an incredible amount of arrests per year.    

An article came last week about the Bronx DA's office complaint room policy of declining to prosecute cases with uncooperative victims.

I've explained in a previous post how a case moves from arrest through trial.  In another post, I discussed how the complaint room works and argued against upset police officers that took umbrage at the Bronx DA for declining to prosecute so many cases.

This is how the complaint room works.

ADAs are assigned to various eight hour shifts ranging from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m.  A supervisor also covers an eight hour shift during the day and ten hour shift at night.  There is also a bureau chief who oversees the operation of the complaint room and arraignments.

The complaint room has since been remodeled.  It used to be a large space cut by makeshift cubicles, slicing the area into private rooms and cubbies.  Some cubicles had doors, some did not.  Some had working computers, printers, and telephones, and some did not.  I actually enjoyed the early shift because it allowed me to get the best cubicle and also to get out early.  The cubicles provided a measure of privacy, but still allowed each person to overhear what was happening next door.

ADAs waited for cases to come through the support staff who screened the cases and placed it into one of two bins - PSNY and victim.  PSNY meant victimless crimes like gravity knives, drugs, or DWI.  As a misdemeanor assistant we were only allowed to screen and write up misdemeanor cases, both PSNY and victim, and all narcotics.  Once I graduated to felonies, we could write up all crimes.

The ADA read through the paperwork and then interviewed the officer, either over the phone if he is at the precinct, or in person if he is at the complaint room.  The ADA is determining whether the police lawfully arrested a person, whether the search meets Fourth Amendment standards, whether the identification is suggestive, and whether the police need to do more investigation.  If it is a valid arrest, the ADA will draft the paperwork for the officer's signature.  If not, the ADA must conference with a supervisor before declining to prosecute it.

In victim cases, the procedure is similar.  Except that after speaking with the officer, the ADA speaks with the victim who has come to the complaint room.  One of three things happen.  The victim tells you he/she does not want to go forward, the ADA decides a crime occurred and moves it forward, or the ADA decides a crime did not occur or there isn't enough evidence and declines to prosecute the case.

The article discusses cases where victims do not appear in the complaint room.  If a victim didnot appear in the complaint room, we sent police officers or detectives to look for him/her.  We call their phone.  We do everything in our power to find them and speak with them.  I have spoken to victims over the phone, in the hospital, and in person, while in the complaint room.  A case only gets declined to prosecute when the victim fails to appear for no reason, we have made numerous attempts to find them, and the crime is a low-level offense.  Serious offenses with evidence other than the victim's word will be written up and moved through the system to arraignment.  Again, this is my experience.

Just one story to share that should give you insight into what it was like to work there.  I picked up a domestic violence case.  I spoke with the officer, who informed me the victim was present with her child in the waiting room.  She only spoke Farsi, but possessed enough English to say she did not want her husband charged with assault.  She wore a hijab and niqab, covering her entire face.  Only her eyes protruded the veil, which showed a purple circle forming around her left eye.  We used a translator service through AT&T, but I had to call into it.  I called the service, finding a Farsi interpreter, from my cubicle while the victim sat in the cubicle next to me on a different phone.  I spoke to the interpreter, who translated and relayed it to the victim next to me.  She politely informed me that she did not want to press charges.  I politely told her she should because this was the fourth time.  She told me, through the interpreter, that she would press charges the next time it happened.  She would wait for the fifth time.  I said the fifth time could mean her children would lose their mother, but she refused to sign any paperwork.  And so it went for thirty minutes. 

So what do you do with a woman who is assaulted every few months?  She would call the police to get her husband away from her for the night, but then refuse to press charges because she doesn't want him in jail.  She wants him home so he can work and make money.  Is it okay to decline to proseute one time?  Two?  What is the correct number when the victim refuses to testify?

We declined.  The victim spoke to our crime victim's advocate who specializes in domestic violence before we made the decision.  The victim decided she would never testify or sign the charges.  Therefore, we had no evidence.  And so is it right to keep a person in jail with no evidence?  Even though he is an abusive husband?  Do we prolong the case through the system when the end is already written?

Obviously I still think about it.  I hope she's okay and that there was no fifth time, although I suspect there was.  It's odd the cases that trail in my subconcious, springing forth like the villian in a horror movie while I'm trying to sleep.

The numbers do not lie.  The Bronx declines to proscute more cases than any other borough.  Cases drag through the court system and victims' emotions pass through a spectrum, ranging from initial anger to an ultimate indifference when a case comes up for trial two years later.  There are methods such as subpoenas and warrants that are used in more serious cases.  But if the victim never wants to cooperate after speaking with the police, the DA's office, and crime victim advocates, should a low-level offense be forced through the system until it dies on speedy trial grounds?  What would that do to a system that is already operating every minute of the day to handle its current workload?  And the ADAs and public defenders who barely keep their head above water on cases where victims are actively involved?     

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Gang Truce

I wanted to write about this story back in June when it first came out.  I'm glad I waited.

El Salvador is a deadly place.  Five gang murders occur a day, which is down from an average of twelve!  Two gangs have been terrorizing the country for years - MS-13 and Barrio 18.  These two gangs were formed in the United States in the early 80s and were imported to El Salvador as their members were deported from the U.S.

Drugs, money, and prostitution are the reason for the gangs.  The members control huge swaths of land with violence and bribery.  And apparently, they murder with impunity.

It's a different type of gang violence than we see in the United States.  The gangs run the land in El Salvador.  The police are even afraid to head into certain areas without a S.W.A.T. team for fear of not returning from them.  In the U.S., the gangs are not as organized or bold.  MS-13 and Barrio 18 are armed better and have more funding than the El Salvador government and therefore it is difficult to put a dent in their operations.  U.S. gangs make huge money from drugs and prostitution, but it is much more difficult to keep those profits when arrests and prosecutions occur.  Our government has money to make arrests and prosecute offenders.  We are able to seize proceeds of crimes.  We also have better weaponry than the gangs.

That is why everyone welcomed the news of a truce between the two gangs in the spring of this year.  Leaders of the gangs met with a bishop and an elected official and negotiated a truce to stop killing and stop recruiting.

There is one similarity to the U.S.  The gangs recruit young, impressionable boys and girls from impoverished neighborhoods.  They promise money, power, community, respect, and the hope of a better life.  All they have to do is carry a gun, sell some drugs, or rob someone.

In El Salvador though, it is join or die.

The truce begged two questions - could it last and was it true?  How many peace accords have we seen between the Israelis and the Palestinians?  India and Pakistan?  Yet the violence and threat of violence continues.  Tensions rise based on past slights.  Gang violence is a cycle of retaliatory murders and assaults until the line is so long that no one can remember how it all started.  All the members know is that they must hate and kill the rivals.

And so recruiting never stopped.  The truce seems like just a way for jailed gang members to negotiate a better lifestyle while incarcerated.  Maybe take a little heat off the gangs by the police and government for awhile.  Peace talks and promises of a truce have worked in the past to allow one side to believe in it while the other builds up their forces for an assault (Germany before WWII?).

Reports indicate that gangs in neighboring Honduras, who has the same problems but with a higher murder rate, are seeking a similar compromise.  But the discovery of those five bodies indicates that recruiting has not stopped.

What is the solution?  Citizens are clearly terrified of defying these gangs.  Children are conscripted into service.  Huge numbers of people are killed in a long running feud.  The government has to hope that the truce is in fact true, while at the same time continuing efforts to eradicate the gangs.  "Speak softly and carry a big stick," as Theodore Roosevelt said.

At least in the U.S., failure to join a gang does not always lead to death.  The key to stopping gang violence and membership here is a combined family training, community leadership, education, jobs, and criminal justice approach.  In Central America, it seems like military strikes are required to destroy the foundations of the gangs and then the infrastructure must be rebuilt forcing the gangs out.

But I do understand, it's easy to say from 4,000 miles away.  The threat of MS-13 and Barrio 18 in the U.S. is enormous and spreading daily.  These gangs cross the country and import drugs and the gang culture with it.  Dismantling them in their home will have an impact world-wide.  

Friday, September 7, 2012

A Doctor, a BMW, and a Longboard

Doctors are tasked with saving lives.  But they are still humans as a community in Western New York discovered in July 2011. 

It was on a suburban road that Alex Rice met Dr. James Corasanti.  Rice riding on the shoulder on her longboard riding home from work.  Corasanti in his BMW driving home from a golf tournament.  Rice didn't survive the meeting and Corasanti left in handcuffs.

This case that captivated a region supplied every twist imaginable.  The facts are simple enough.  Dr. Corasanti went to a golf tournament after work on Friday, July 8, 2011.  He had some drinks with friends.  He and his wife left in separate cars.  While driving, he sends some text messages to co-workers and is driving above (not incredibly high) the speed limit.

It was on Heim Road in Amherst, New York, that Dr. Corasanti hit Alex Rice while she was on her longboard.  He kept driving to his house without stopping.  The doctor then deletes those text messages as do the people he was texting.  When the police draw his blood four hours later because he refused to supply a sample, it is still a .10.  Those were the undisputed facts that seemed like a clear cut case for reckless manslaughter and leaving the scene of a fatal accident.

As they say in the sports world, that's why they play the game.  This is the type of case that makes careers for prosecutors and defense attorneys.  The case stayed on the front burner for an entire year, allowing the public to become familiar with all the players.  The defense attorneys had a G-I doctor for a client with unlimited funds.  They could defend the case however they choose.  Win and there will be no shortage of clients in their future.  Lose?  Well, that was okay because everyone expected it.  For prosecutors, this is the type of case that could lead to other opportunities because of the goodwill fostered by the public. 

I've previously discussed the difference between an accident and a collision.  This case is the prime example.  The prosecution team, led by the chief of the homicide bureau, the chief of the vehicular crimes bureau, and the senior trial attorney framed the doctor as a careless driver that did what he wanted and didn't care about the consequences.

The defense team, also comprised of three lawyers with about 100 years of criminal defense experience between them, wanted the jury to see the case was just a tragic accident.

Money played a role in this case.  The doctor was driving a $100,000 car, killed a teenager who worked at a pizza place, went to his suburban home, and then ran out the back door after his wife informed him the police were at the crash scene.  The prosecution wanted the jury to view Dr. Corasanti as a man of means who would do whatever he could to save his half a million dollar a year lifestyle.

But this can backfire.  The defense team wanted to show Dr. Corasanti as a self-made man.  A man who made a lot of money because he worked very hard and helped people.  It was an accident and there was no reason two lives should end.  Plus, the defense team did what every trial attorney needs to do - turn the weakness into a strength.  How can that $100,000 car help them?

Jury selection occurred during this spring.  Every news station and paper kept this story alive on its top story and front page, providing daily reports and hourly updates on their websites.  Rich doctor kills teenage girl?  Doctor sworn to do no harm, flees after he kills a person?  The headlines can write themselves.  The hate and invective in the community was palpable.  Just listen to any radio call-in show or read a comment on-line to find that.  The doctor was already guilty in the public eye.

Jury selection lasted over one week, as the court weeded out the many who had already formed the communal feeling of guilt.  Finally, nine months after the crime, it was time for justice.  Time for the truth to come out and lead to an already determined conclusion.  Twelve jurors and four alternates were ready to hear the case.

One alternate was quickly tapped to become a regular when juror number 5 didn't show up one of the first days of the actual trial.  Turned out, he was arrested the night before for DWI.  Arrested for DWI while sitting on the biggest DWI case the region had ever seen?  If it wasn't true, people wouldn't believe me. 

Gripping testimony followed, interspersed with experts and police officers.

Prosecution witnesses described seeing Dr. Corasanti's car speeding down the road.  They described hearing an "ungodly" crash and going back to help the girl, who was already dead by that time.  The doctor was nowhere to be found.  Police tracked him to his house, but he had already fled, informing  his neighbors that his life was over.  He was arrested a little over an hour after the crash and refused to give a blood sample.  The court ordered one and he was still over the legal limit four hours later.  The prosecution rested, confident in a verdict of guilt on at least the charge of leaving the scene of a fatal accident.  Their best evidence?  The doctor's car:

How could he not know he hit something with that kind of damage?

The defense would not go down without a fight.  Most of the facts were not in dispute.  So they had to explain why everything happened.  Dr. Corasanti testified that he drank alcohol, but he was not drunk.  He sent texts, but never while driving and only while stopped at a stop sign.  He was a doctor and needed to check the texts from work.  Why were they deleted and others weren't?  He regularly deleted texts.  Why did he leave?  He didn't know he hit anything.  Why did he run from his house?  His wife went back to the crash scene and told him he hit a girl and then he freaked out.  Why did he refuse to provide a blood sample?  His attorney told him to.

And they somehow had to turn that high-end BMW into a strength.  What do luxury cars have that other cars don't?

A defense car expert testified that the crash occurred at around 39 miles per hour, slightly above the 35 limit.  He also testified that this BMW 7 series was designed so that the driver would not hear ambient sound from outside the car. That was how the doctor didn't hear or feel the crash, while drivers in other cars and people in houses heard it from a quarter mile away.  The car was designed like a tank apparently, where the operator who ran something over would not feel or hear it.  At least, that was how it was portrayed.

And the elevated blood alcohol?  Another defense expert said there may have been a problem with the blood testing, and therefore .10 might not be accurate.

The defense?  It was a terrible accident.  Alex Rice might have swerved into the doctor's path of travel.  The doctor said he didn't hear or see a crash.  The blood test might be inaccurate.  It was a perfect storm of coincidences that landed Dr. Corasanti in the middle of this tragic accident. 

And what did the jury do?

Guilty of driving drunk, a misdemeanor, not guilty of leaving the scene of an accident, manslaughter, or tampering with physical evidence.

Why?  This is what they said when interviewed after.  Here.  They claimed there was reasonable doubt, accepting the defense arguments and experts.

The public outrage was immediate and prolific.  No one could understand how a jury found him not guilty of killing Alex Rice if they found him guilty of drunk driving.  They didn't understand why he wasn't convicted of leaving the scene of a fatal accident, when it was undisputed that he did.

The only evidence that the jury didn't hear was that the doctor had a prior DWI about 10 years ago.  Would this have changed the outcome?  Well, that is why the law keeps it out.  It requires juries to decide the facts of a case without looking at a person's past. 

The sure victor slipped through the prosecution's fingers.  Letters poured into the court from concerned citizens, family members, and fellow physicians.  They begged for leniency in some and the maximum sentence in others.  Callers filled the airwaves and loaded up the blog world.  The maximum the doctor could receive for the DWI was a one year sentence.

And that's what the judge gave him.

The case was tragic, no matter what the result of the trial was.  Many people believe that money won Dr. Corasanti his freedom.  He was able to hire the best experts and the best legal team and that a person of lesser means would have been convicted.

The truth is that Alex Rice is sadly passed, no matter what the outcome of the trial.  Every prosecutor suffers defeats in cases we should win.  But we win cases we should lose.  We don't perform our duties for a perfect record.  We do the job because we care about the victims of crimes and that the laws are upheld.  The criminal trial is over, the civil case will drag on, but Alex Rice will always be missed.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Too Much Evidence?

It has been a busy week and weekend with work.  I'm working on a very interesting case recap for Friday, but I wanted to share a story I found in the meantime.  I guess it's another good way to get away with a crime.

Just leave too much evidence like this doctor who is a fugitive in Panama did.  See other ways here and here

Monday, September 3, 2012

Millions in Maple

Did you know that up to 80% of the world's maple syrup supply comes from Quebec, Canada?  Well, the sticky bandits knew.  And they used that knowledge to swipe millions of pounds of the stuff from a warehouse up there.

I am always surprised at the human genius.  First, to discover that processing maple syrup is worth millions of dollars and second, to decide that is a good idea to steal it.  The thieves had a few things going for them - it's Canada, night security is probably lax around a maple syrup plant (we're not talking Fort Knox here), they only had to traverse a fence and locks.  Seems like an inside job because they obviously knew the schedule, that the product was only there for a short period, how much the syrup was worth, and how to get it out of the original barrels into something else for transport.

If more criminals were this smart, I would be out of a job.  Contrast the sticky bandits with these guys:


Enough of the bank and gas station robberies!  Watch out molasses plant.  Enjoy the day off.