| Dr. James Corasanti (L) and his attorney Joel Daniels. Buffalo News photo.
It was a riveting trial that received wall-to-wall media coverage from the start of jury selection April 19 until the dramatic ending last Thursday night when the jury in the case of Dr. James Corasanti, charged in the hit-run death of an 18-year-old girl, returned its verdict of not guilty on all felony counts.
Many people who had followed the trial in the media appeared stunned by the jury’s decision which found Dr. Corasanti not guilty of manslaughter and the other felony charges he faced in the death of Alexandria Rice and found him guilty only of a misdemeanor count of driving while intoxicated.
While the not-guilty verdict triggered an angry and shocked response from many, Mike Kelly, a state and local prosecutor for 30 years in Buffalo, said he believes the jury did what many juries have done before in cases involving defendants like doctors, police officers, and celebrities: found enough reasonable doubt in the evidence to find the defendant not guilty.
“I believe the jury looked for reasonable doubt,” said Kelly, “and in this case found it. I’ve seen it many times before when they [the jurors] do not want to take away the [defendant’s] livelihood and they look for reasonable doubt.”
Kelly praised the prosecutors, saying they put on a very strong case against Dr. Corasanti but in the end the defense attorneys and the defendant himself were able to convince the jury that he was not guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. “You have to give them credit,” said Kelly of defense attorneys Joel Daniels, Tom Burton, and Cheryl Meyers-Buth, “they put on a great defense.”
The defense called five witnesses in presenting its case, including Dr. Corasanti, and as we said a few weeks ago, his testimony was critical, and during an interview Daniels said one thing the doctor wanted in this trial was to get his story out.
“He wanted people to know, that’s why he testified,” said Daniels. “He wanted people to know that he didn’t see her and didn’t know what he hit. It felt like he rolled over something. Later he saw the damage, his wife went to the scene and she called Tom Burton and called her husband. Then Dr. Corasanti did the right thing, he called his lawyer.”
Daniels said Dr. Corasanti did very well on the stand, calling him “a very humble, soft-spoken guy who created a good impression. He’s a likable guy, a doctor’s doctor, the guy the other doctors go to when they need help, and his testimony was very important. We put our cards on the table and he held up well under five hours of cross examination.”
Daniels said Dr. Corasanti “knew we had a tough road from the start, but he had confidence in us. He said, ‘do your best for me, I know you will,’ but it was an ordeal for him. Here he was, at the top of his game, and then all of a sudden…”
As for the verdict itself, Daniels praised the jurors for their attention to the evidence, saying “I take my hat of to them. People are dead wrong in criticizing this jury, they were very courageous.”
Daniels said it appeared the jury gave a lot of credit to the doctor’s testimony and didn’t care for the government’s star witness, motorist Mark Rowland who testified that Alexandria Rice was “highly visible” when he passed her on Heim Rd. about 11:15 p.m. on July 8, shortly before she was struck by Dr. Corasanti’s vehicle. He testified that Corasanti’s vehicle was moving quickly and was half in the bike lane when he passed it, and then he heard the crash and returned to the scene to find the girl’s lifeless body. But under cross-examination by Daniels, he was found to be telling a slightly different story than he told the grand jury. He told the grand jury panel Corasanti was driving a silver vehicle, maybe a Honda, when he was actually driving a dark blue BMW.
Jury foreman William Nixon also said after the trial there was reasonable doubt about how much Corasanti could hear inside his soundproof car, an issue never raised by prosecutors. The defense also raised questions with their own expert about the way Amherst police reconstructed the accident about Rice’s location in the road on her longboard when the impact occurred. Those points go back to prosecutor Kelly’s experience that jurors in these types of cases take them very seriously and issues like whether Corasanti could actually hear the crash or see the girl, described by the defense as a small, dark silhouette, provided the reasonable doubt they were looking for.
Daniels said the jury “loved Tom Burton, and he did a great job with the scientific experts. I think they liked our defense and didn’t care for Rowland who came across as arrogant and a know-it-all. They had problems with his testimony and didn’t believe everything he said.”
After the trial, Erie County District Attorney Frank Sedita III said of the jury: “They believed the claims and explanations of Dr. Corasanti. Personally, I didn’t believe them. I wasn’t on the jury.”
Burton said, “We believe the jury saw it for what it was—a tragic, horrible accident.”
Corasanti faces sentencing on Aug. 16 on his DWI misdemeanor conviction and could get up to a year in jail. He could also face a disciplinary proceeding with regard to his medical license, but Daniels said he is optimistic that he will keep his license because it was not a felony conviction.
A civil suit against Transit Valley Golf Club and Dr. Corasanti’s insurance carrier has already begun.
As for the trial itself, Daniels, who has been a practicing attorney for 47 years, says it is one for the history books. “I’ve handled them all, but this one is right on top,” he said. “I’m very grateful to that jury.”