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Corasanti trial's jury selection is meticulous; 8 spots unfilled entering day 3 in fatal hit-run

On the second day of jury selection last week, only two people were added to the panel that will decide whether Dr. James G. Corasanti committed manslaughter and other crimes when his BMW fatally struck teenage skateboarder Alexandria "Alix" Rice in a hit-and-run incident.

The task of selecting a jury has been methodical, even tedious.

But if evaluating the selection process by who was kept off the jury -- and not just by who got on -- lawyers for the 56-year-old Corasanti had reason to feel they accomplished their job as they left Erie County Courthouse on Friday.

Near the end of the day, down to her few remaining minutes to quiz potential jurors, defense lawyer Cheryl Meyers-Buth turned her attention to a retired Buffalo woman. The woman had already completed a questionnaire and answered questions from a prosecutor. She was among the 15 potential jurors still left after 59 others called to the courtroom that day had been excused for one reason or another.

That's when Meyers-Buth elicited from her a fact that had yet to come out. The potential juror's husband had been a victim of a drunken driver.

"He couldn't stand up he was so drunk," the potential juror recalled.

What's more, the police let him go, she said.

Meyers-Buth pressed for details, asking her whether she could keep that incident from influencing her if she was called to sit on the Corasanti jury.

"I would try to, but I can't say for sure," the potential juror said.

She was not picked for the jury.

When jury selection resumes today, four more jurors and four alternates will be needed to complete the process.

Erie County Judge Sheila A. DiTullio and lawyers on both sides have warned that serving as jurors will be tough, given the details of the teenager's death and the expected one-month length of the trial.

"The nature and quality of the proof is the ultimate determining factor that will control a verdict," said attorney Leigh E. Anderson, who is not connected to the Corasanti trial.

"Twelve people on a jury will listen carefully to the testimony, closing arguments and the judge's charge," she said. "Then they will go into deliberations and put aside appeals to passion and things of that nature, sift through the facts and decide who do they believe and what do they believe."

In all, about 140 prospective jurors have been ushered into the courtroom during the first two days of the selection process, most of them lasting only as long as it took to cite job demands, child care duties or upcoming vacations as reasons to be excused from jury duty.

Among those excused was a woman who replied, "Everybody's entitled to a mistake," before adding, "but everybody should be accountable."

A Walmart employee once struck by a drunken driver who ended up serving a jail sentence was also excused, as was a woman previously treated by Corasanti, a Getzville physician.

Also dismissed was an Amherst woman who lives near the spot on Heim Road where Rice, 18, was killed at about 11:20 p.m. July 8.

The quizzing of potential jurors from Meyers-Buth and defense lawyer Joel L. Daniels offered clues as to whom they would like to keep off the jury.

They asked if any of the potential jurors had ever sued a doctor.

Corasanti drove an expensive, top-of-the-line BMW, and was a member of a country club, Daniels said.

"Will that fact make a difference?" he asked, concerned how his client's wealth might affect jurors' perception of the doctor.

They asked who among the potential jurors read blogs, many of which have posted comments reflecting community outrage over Rice's death.

The defense lawyers asked whether anyone was a member of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, or did not drink alcohol at all.

A 63-year-old bus monitor who said he does not drink -- "my wife's choice," he said -- was still picked for the jury.

He also said his wife teaches ethics to nursing students at a community college outside Erie County.

Among others selected for the jury so far:

*A 50-year-old welder with a DWI arrest 20 years ago.

*A recent Canisius College graduate who works as a machine operator and lives in Buffalo.

*A 48-year-old engineer from the Southtowns who has 18- and 20-year-old children.

*A 40-year-old claims representative for a federal agency with four children between the ages of 5 and 19.

*A 41-year-old assistant supervisor at a group home.

*A 53-year-old trucking parts salesman who plays golf and previously was a country club member.

Jury selection is important in any trial, but especially in one involving a defendant who is not a career criminal. Some defense lawyers say they would seek jurors who hold professional jobs and who have had to make tough, unpopular decisions at work and know how to cope with the aftermath.

Sunil Bakshi, a defense attorney who is not involved in the Corasanti case, said he has a notion of the kinds of jurors each side wants on the jury.

"If I'm [Erie County District Attorney] Frank Sedita, I want critical thinkers, those who can weed out the minutiae and focus on the evidence," Bakshi said.

"If I'm picking a jury on this case for the defense, I want a juror who's been through a lot of life experiences. I want to see someone who's had struggles with life. I want someone who has a relative in jail. I want somebody who has made mistakes themselves or has a family member who has made mistakes, so they can sympathize with Corasanti."

During jury selection, prosecutors have addressed the "there but for the grace of God go I" sentiment that some prospective jurors might hold.

People go out to dinner and have some drinks. So some prospective jurors might look at Corasanti at the defense table and think, "with a little bit of bad luck, that could be me," prosecutor James F. Bargnesi said last week.

"You have to set sympathy aside," Bargnesi told potential jurors last week, and render a verdict "based on facts, not sympathy."