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Corasanti wealth plays role in his trial; Prosecution, defense have made that clear

The charges against Dr. James G. Corasanti are manslaughter and driving away from a teenage skateboarder he fatally struck.

But the opening statements by the prosecution and the defense make clear that Corasanti's wealth is also a part of the trial.

Prosecutor James F. Bargnesi referred to Corasanti's BMW as a "top-of-the-line, $90,000 luxury vehicle."

And he asked about the cost of the Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon that Corasanti ordered for his table at the Transit Valley Country Club -- where Corasanti played golf and socialized in the hours before the fatal hit-and-run.

The bottle cost him $100.

Just two minutes into his opening statement, Corasanti's defense lawyer defended the Getzville doctor's wealth before countering the criminal charges.

"He made it on his own -- no silver spoon," said defense lawyer Joel L. Daniels. "Nobody gave him anything."

Corasanti's wealth stands in stark contrast to the modest upbringing of the hit-and-run victim, Alexandria "Alix" Rice, 18. Corasanti was driving back to his $269,000 brick home in one of the nicer neighborhoods in Getzville. Rice, after a night shift at a Hopkins Road pizzeria, was riding her longboard to get to her father's Amherst duplex five miles away.

"It shouldn't matter if someone on welfare hit the girl and left the scene or if Warren Buffett did," said Paul J. Cambria Jr., a prominent criminal-defense lawyer not involved in the Corasanti case. "Having said that, it does matter."

As the trial enters its third day today, it seems the doctor's upper income status cuts both ways.

Corasanti's financial means help explain why he's able to hire three highly regarded lawyers for his defense team. What's more, many hit-and-run defendants do not have the money to hire experts they would need to counter the prosecution's experts.

But Corasanti could also have an image problem.

The jurors who will decide his fate are not part of his country-club set.

Among the jurors are a school bus monitor, welder, carpenter, claims representative for a federal agency, a group home supervisor and a truck parts salesman.

And prosecutors want to create an impression of Corasanti as "an arrogant, rich doctor who basically had no respect for anything except his own butt," Cambria said.

>What Corasanti said

Bargnesi reminded jurors that even after Corasanti realized he had struck someone on July 8 on Heim Road in Amherst, he still did not call 911 or the police. Instead, he ran from his house, even as police officers spanned out across the neighborhood looking for a damaged car.

And when a couple of his neighbors found him a short time later, according to the prosecutor, Corasanti saved his anguish for himself.

"Most telling is what this defendant says to those neighbors," Bargnesi said. "He says to those neighbors, 'I've ruined my life. I've ruined my career.'

"Forty-five minutes after Alix was sent flying 167 feet, after being destroyed by his 5,000-pound vehicle, 45 minutes after having her neck broken and her head nearly severed from her body, this defendant still only cares about his life and his career," Bargnesi said.

Bargnesi, according to Cambria, weaved comments into his opening statement to show jurors that Corasanti's mindset was "I, I, I and me, me, me," and that he's "the rich guy and everybody else is crumbs under his shoe."

Daniels, on the other hand, sought to portray Corasanti's wealth in a different way, just minutes into his opening statement.

"Let's clear the air about something," Daniels told jurors.

Corasanti belonged to Transit Valley Country Club, Daniels said.

"It's a nice place," Daniels said. "They have a nice 18-hole golf course over there. He has friends there. It's a nice place to go, have a drink, relax, play golf.

"And he drives this expensive car," Daniels said. "We know that. BMW 750.

>Humble beginnings

"But nobody gave him that country club membership," Daniels said. "Nobody bought that car for him. No mega lottery wins for Jim Corasanti and his family. What he has, he's earned. And he did that the old-fashioned way. He worked hard."

Corasanti grew up in Utica, Daniels said.

"His beginnings, to say the least, were humble and modest," Daniels said. "He made it on his own -- no silver spoon. Nobody gave him anything. His parents didn't have much, but they put him on the right track."

Corasanti attended Niagara University on a full-ride scholarship, and he graduated second in his class, his lawyer said.

Corasanti then went to medical school at the University at Buffalo, where he finished first in his class, Daniels said. Corasanti has a doctorate in biochemistry.

He studied at Yale University for three years on a fellowship.

"He is a gastroenterologist," Daniels said. "He does all the procedures. Upper GI. Lower GI. You name it. He had close to 2,000 active patients. He was the go-to guy."

>Club witnesses

Kelley A. Omel, chief of the District Attorney's Vehicular Crimes Bureau, quizzed a Transit Valley Country Club staff member about Corasanti's drink orders and asked her how often someone ordered the kind of expensive wine that Corasanti ordered.

"Not real common," said Kathy Cahill of Tonawanda, a server at the country club.

But Daniels followed up her questions with his own about how the doctor treated them.

Was he a gentleman?

"Always a gentleman," Cahill said.

How well did he tip?

"A good tipper," she said.

"A good customer?" Daniels asked another bartender, Christian Sylvester.

"Absolutely," Sylvester said.

Daniels asked these questions so their answers would show jurors that Corasanti is not a pompous jerk who mistreated the country club's hired help.

Bargnesi, the prosecutor, used the word "luxury" when describing Corasanti's car.

And it was one of the features of his BMW that led police to Corasanti's neighborhood as they looked for the hit-and-run driver.

"This defendant had no idea as he sped away that his car -- a 2010 BMW 7 series L -- was leaving a trail, a trail that smart, observant, determined police officers would utilize to begin to try and figure out who it was that took off from that horrific scene and left this young girl to die," Bargnesi said.

>Broken door

The prosecutor told jurors that Corasanti's "top-of-the line, $90,000 luxury vehicle comes with a little automatic door on the front of the bumper."

"And behind that little automatic door is a tiny hose, and when you run the wipers, automatically that little door opens," Bargnesi said. "That little hose pops out and periodically sprays off the headlights.

"Well, when that vehicle blasted 5-foot-5, 142-pound Alix at that speed, with all of that force, that little automatic door broke off of the front of the bumper," Bargnesi said.

"And that little hose behind it cracked, and a little bit of fluid began to spray out onto the pavement as the defendant's car drove home."

A police officer followed the trail of fluid.

The trail stopped three houses shy of where Corasanti lives.