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Missing testimony in Corasanti trial tells a story in itself Lawyers for both sides chose not to call key witnesses from the night of July 8

Jurors in the Dr. James G. Corasanti manslaughter and hit-and-run trial listened to 42 witnesses over the past month -- from police officers and forensic experts to his neighbors and the Getzville physician himself.

But jurors did not hear from everyone. Nor did they hear everything.

Laureen Corasanti, the defendant's wife, was not called to the stand by either side.

The first Amherst police officer to talk to Corasanti after the fatal incident -- on a cellphone as the distraught doctor walked around the neighborhood -- did not testify.

Jurors heard from none of the men and women who played golf and shared a $100 bottle of Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon with Corasanti at Transit Valley Country Club in the hours before his fatal drive on Heim Road last July.

No character witnesses appeared on Corasanti's behalf.

Jurors also did not learn sensitive information about the victim's past.

Throughout the trial, prosecutors and defense attorneys had to weigh the pros and cons of whom to put on the stand and which records to offer as evidence.

Given their months of preparation, the lawyers trying the Corasanti case were in the best position to decide whom to call as a witness and which issues to raise.

Still, their decisions are "so instinctive," said retired Erie County District Attorney Frank J. Clark, who has been following the trial. "It is 90 percent art and 10 percent science. You get a gut feeling."

Jurors will hear closing arguments and begin deliberations Tuesday on five counts that could send the 56-year-old Getzville physician to prison for up to 23 years.

At trial, defense attorneys -- either by choice or by judicial direction -- avoided what was probably the most controversial issue.

Before the trial started, defense attorneys asked Erie County Court Judge Sheila A. DiTullio to review the medical and mental health records of Alexandria "Alix" Rice, the teenage longboard skater Corasanti's BMW struck and killed. The judge would then decide whether defense attorneys could see the records and, possibly, use them.

The defense previously said Rice, 18, referred to herself in social media sites as "a cutter" who suffered from depression and said she also wrote she wanted to die "fast and dangerous doing something exciting."

In making the request, the doctor's attorneys called Rice's behavior "a relevant area of inquiry."

The judge did not announce her ruling on that request in open court, so it is not clear whether she allowed the defense attorneys access to the records.

If the judge granted access, defense attorneys opted not to use the material.

The defense attorneys did not appeal any ruling involving Rice's mental health records in open court. They have not hesitated to appeal other rulings that went against them during the trial. Some lawyers following the case see the lack of an appeal as an indication the judge granted the request for the records.

Even if she did, Clark said, he is not surprised Rice's patient records did not come up.

"You walk a very fine line when putting on proof directed at the girl," Clark said. "If you try to besmirch her reputation, and if you can't really show it bore directly on the event, you run the real risk of angering the jurors."

There was, however, public reaction when the defense requested the records before trial, and that may have been a tip-off for the defense attorneys.

"It was pretty obvious that would get a negative response," said Paul J. Cambria Jr., a criminal-defense lawyer not involved in the Corasanti case. "They may have pulled back."

Also, her mental health information may not have helped Corasanti's case, Cambria said.

"Maybe there wasn't anything," Cambria said.

Neither the prosecution nor the defense called Laureen Corasanti as a witness.

"I'm not surprised at all," Cambria said of prosecutors deciding against calling her.

"I didn't think there was any reason to," Cambria said. "They can't make a spouse testify against another spouse."

After Dr. Corasanti arrived at his home after the fatal incident, his wife accompanied him to inspect the damaged headlight, the crumpled hood and the red marks that looked like blood on the front of the car, according to his testimony.

Laureen Corasanti then got into her Range Rover and drove to Heim, where she saw an ambulance as well as police cars blocking the road.

When she returned home "frantic," telling him what she saw, Dr. Corasanti realized he had struck a person.

Later, outside her home, she did not reveal to an Amherst police officer, on patrol looking for a damaged car, what she knew.

"She has an absolute right not to respond," Cambria said. "There's nothing illegal about that."

"You can't call one spouse against the other unless you can prove their conversation together in some way was advancing criminal conduct," he said.

Sunil Bakshi, a defense lawyer who is not involved in the case, said her testimony might have helped her husband.

Bakshi said jurors might wonder why they did not hear from Laureen Corasanti, friends the doctor socialized with that night or even patients whose lives Corasanti had saved.

"Why didn't his wife testify?" Bakshi asked. "She could have said, 'When my husband got home, he had no idea he hit a person. He was in shock and ran out of the house.' "

"I thought the jury would have wanted to hear that from her," Bakshi said.

Jurors did not hear from anyone from among the three couples who socialized with the Corasantis at the country club in the hours before the fatal incident. Two of the couples were members of the club. The other couple were guests of one of the other members.

"Not one of the guests at that couples golf night say he drank too much, or that he even looked like he had one too many," defense attorney Joel L. Daniels said in his opening statement.

None took the stand.

"Maybe we didn't hear from those people because Joel didn't think they could offer enough to help the doctor," Bakshi said.

Under cross-examination, any of those who socialized with him could have been asked about drinks they may have bought for the doctor and about how much they saw him drink.

When explaining Corasanti's late-night texting July 8, Daniels called him a "24-7" physician.

"Why not put someone on whose life he saved, someone he helped in the middle of the night? Show he's 24-7. Show he's texting for emergency purposes," Bakshi said.

"I don't think it hurts to humanize a guy beyond his own testimony," Bakshi said.

Clark, the former prosecutor, said character witnesses might not have helped -- and could have hurt.

"To say he's an all-around good guy, I don't know if that really helps you too much," Clark said.

"Everybody knows he's a physician," Clark said. "But these things cut both ways. If he's such a fine doctor and such a caring person, why in God's name didn't he stop after he hit her?"

And there was another risk.

DiTullio prohibited prosecutors from questioning Corasanti about his 1996 plea to driving while ability impaired in Niagara County. The jury has not heard anything about it.

But if a character witness contended Corasanti is not the kind of person to drive under the influence of alcohol, that could have opened the door for prosecutors to ask about the earlier conviction.

In his earlier case, Corasanti registered a 0.16 percent blood-alcohol content after he told deputies he had been drinking champagne. He was ticketed for driving out of his lane.

For the defense: "How far can you go without opening the door for the prior arrest to come in?" Clark said.

Why risk it?

If the prior arrest came in, Clark said, "I think it would have been devastating to the defense."

After the fatal incident in July, as Corasanti and two of his neighbors walked and talked, one of them, Joseph Piparo, sent a text to off-duty Amherst Police Officer John McGarvey, an acquaintance.

Piparo handed Corasanti the phone so he could talk with McGarvey.

Both Piparo and Corasanti talked about McGarvey's role. He is the officer who told Corasanti where to surrender.

Piparo said McGarvey told him, over the phone, that a young woman had been struck and that "she wasn't in good shape."

In all, 13 Amherst police officers, investigators and detectives testified. McGarvey was not among them.

"They must not have felt that person could help their case," Cambria said.

Prosecutors may have asked him about Corasanti's speech -- whether it was slurred -- and his willingness or ability to follow directions.

"The answers may not have been the ones the prosecutors liked," Cambria said.

Corasanti, 56, faces charges of second-degree vehicular manslaughter, second-degree manslaughter, leaving the scene of an incident without reporting resulting in death, and tampering with physical evidence. Prosecutors have said Corasanti was drunk, speeding and texting on his way home from a country club outing when he struck the young woman and drove away.

Corasanti's defense attorneys have said he was not impaired at the time of the fatal accident and that he did not realize he had struck a person until after he arrived home.

email: plakamp@buffnews.com