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.

2 comments:

  1. That poor girl and her poor family. I would be outraged as well--in fact, I am. What's most disturbing is that this guy will very likely be out driving his car while drunk and texting again. He may or may not have hit someone. The good news is that panic or no panic, self-made or not, he sounds like or at least it appears from the evidence that he is a weak, pathetic coward and a sorry excuse for a human being and guess what? He has to live the rest of his life as that.

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  2. Nice article. Very useful and pretty interesting to read.
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