Corasanti Acquitted

An Erie County jury yesterday acquitted Dr. James Corasanti of 2nd degree vehicular manslaughter, 2nd degree manslaughter, leaving the scene of an accident that resulted in death without reporting it, and two counts of tampering with evidence. He was convicted of one lesser, misdemeanor charge of DWI.

The vehicular manslaughter charge requires a finding of “criminal negligence“, which basically means he fails to see or perceive something that he should have, and that his failure to do so represents a “gross departure” from the reasonable person standard of care. If the defendant was DWI, there is a rebuttable presumption that his mental condition contributed to the death. 

The 2nd degree manslaughter charge requires a finding of “reckless” culpable conduct. As compared with criminal negligence, recklessness requires a finding that the defendant was aware of a substantial risk of unnecessary harm, and disregarded it. 

In this case, Corasanti took the stand – something he was under no obligation to do as a criminal defendant. His legal team took a calculated risk in exposing him to the scrutiny of cross-examination, and it was completely up to the jury whether to believe him when he said he didn’t see Alix Rice on her longboard; that he didn’t know he had hit a person – much less killed her; that he wasn’t drunk; that he wasn’t texting; that he wasn’t speeding or weaving. The jury bought it. 

That’s not the fault of the prosecution, or the judge, or the jury. That’s no one’s fault at all. That’s just how it shook out.

Mad at Corasanti? Of course. He hit and killed a girl with his car. Privileged rich guy with a 5-series and a low-number EC license plate. The very embodiment of local WNY monied privilege. But that wasn’t the issue – whether he committed that act, but whether he had the culpable mental conduct in doing so that would justify sending him to jail.  His wealth and prominence weren’t an issue, either in the commission of the crime. Mere accident, or something that would have/could have been prevented had Corasanti acted like any reasonable person? This jury found that this was a tragic accident, not one punishable by jail time – not one that he could have prevented. 

Face it – if you were in Corasanti’s shoes, you’d have paid every penny to buy the best damn criminal defense you could afford, too. 

Alix Rice, via Facebook

A jury is specifically instructed – carefully selected – to be impartial; to set aside prejudices or sympathies they may have. They most certainly didn’t insult the memory of Alix Rice last night – they couldn’t have; weren’t allowed to.  The judge explicitly told them to set any such feeling aside. Juries aren’t supposed to convict people because they feel badly for the victim or her family. Juries aren’t supposed to convict people because popular opinion will be outraged at what they did. Juries aren’t supposed to decide based on sympathy or empathy. 

Juries are specifically instructed to analyze the facts presented to them in the courtroom, and apply the law to the facts as they find them. Jurors are uniquely empowered to make determinations about the credibility of evidence and witnesses before them. This jury worked hard and did what was asked of them. They were careful, methodical, and thoughtful. They analyzed the evidence. It just so happened that they had what they considered to be a reasonable doubt about Corasanti’s guilt on the homicide counts. 

They apparently found that Corasanti never saw Rice – that she was operating her longboard in such a way that she was very difficult to be seen. They may have found that Rice contributed to her own death by the way in which she was operating the longboard. That’s enough to conclude that Corasanti was neither criminally negligent nor reckless. 

But the public outcry – it’s totally reasonable for people to be outraged. A young girl is dead, and a wealthy, prominent person was able to buy himself the best local criminal defense team he could afford. In this case, he probably dropped six figures to buy accident reconstructionists, expert witnesses, and some of the most effective criminal defense lawyers in town. Is it fair? Are the people who are outraged going to agitate to change the laws so that indigent or middle-income criminal defendants have equal access to expert defense witnesses?  A turning point in this case was the expert testimony that Rice’s longboard may have veered across the fog line into Corasanti’s path. That testimony cost a lot of money, and likely saved Corasanti from prison.

Left the body in the brambles? Call Joel Daniels. Caught by a sleuth? Call Cheryl Meyers-Buth. Need a jury uncertain? Call Tom Burton. 

Most people would have probably taken a plea. This trial was a huge gamble. A massive risk. All or nothing for Corasanti. Insert your big-win-gambling-analogy here. 

Had Alix Rice ran down a prominent doctor late at night after leaving “martini night” at a friend’s house, and registering a .1 BAC a few hours later have gotten away with it? We’ll never know, but I doubt it. Maybe it depends on the defense her family could have afforded. 

Justice? Justice is what you make of it. Corasanti probably thinks he found justice. Supporters of Alix Rice don’t. But this isn’t over. Civil suits have been brought against Corasanti on behalf of Rice’s estate. There, the standard of proof for a plaintiff is significantly lower than in criminal court. Corasanti may never go to jail, but depending on how well-insured he is, he very well may be financially destroyed. If his personal assets are exposed, all his wealth will be at risk, his future and his legacy demolished. Is that justice? 

After the verdict, Corasanti’s legal team started in with “nobody’s a winner here” and other mouth-noises about how sad this all is for everybody. I’d suggest that the legal team is better at defending criminals than public relations. Now is a great time for them to keep quiet. No one wants to hear their platitudes about winning and losing. Quite palpably, Dr. Corasanti is the winner and Alix Rice is the loser. Corasanti woke up this morning in his own home, convicted only of a first-offense misdemeanor. He’s surrounded by his wife and family. Alix Rice remains dead, her life gone, her future destroyed, her friends and family even more distraught and filled with loss. It’s quite clear that there was a winner and a loser in this case. Corasanti’s team should dummy up and let Rice’s family grieve, and let her supporters be outraged. 

Judge DiTullio did not allow reporters to live-blog or Tweet during the trial. She didn’t allow the proceedings to be televised, as is the norm in New York State. I think it’s long past the time to change that rule. If we’re going to subject ourselves to criminal trial porn, then it’d be helpful if the general public was better informed about what was going on in court, in real time. 500-word summaries of a day’s worth of testimony don’t cut it. Unless you were in that courtroom for the entirety of the proceedings, you have only a generalized, condensed idea what that jury saw and heard. Court proceedings are public in nature, but the public works for a living. It’s time New York changed its rules to permit electronic media in court as a general rule, and leave judges discretion to exclude them, not the other way around. 

Please don’t vilify the jurors. They did what they were supposed to do, and they did it thoughtfully. You can disagree with their verdict, but they aren’t the bad guys and they aren’t your enemy. If jurors start fearing for their lives or start getting harassed because they fulfilled their civic duty, you deal a blow to our system – an imperfect one in an imperfect world.  Please, media, stay away from the roadside shrine to Alix Rice. Let people grieve and remember in peace. Get man-in-the-street voxpops somewhere else. Anywhere else. 

Lawyers win, lawyers lose. Juries get it right, juries get it wrong. The guilty go to jail, and the guilty get off. The innocent get off, and the innocent go to jail. The innocent sometimes die. Life isn’t fair, money is important, and sometimes things don’t go the way you expect them to go. As long as the matter was tried fairly – and no one, anywhere, has suggested otherwise – we must accept what happened last night. We don’t have to like it, and we can analyze it every which-way, but if you’re ever charged with a crime, you’ll come to appreciate the inherent fairness of our system, and the protections it affords the accused.  Neither sending Corasanti to jail, nor sending him to the poorhouse will ever bring Alix Rice back. But the latter will make him literally pay for what he did that night. 

After all, the jury in the civil suit will only need to find that he was culpable for Alix Rice’s death by a preponderance of the evidence, a lower standard than that within which the criminal jury worked. 

Perhaps then, the public will feel that justice has been done.