Members of Dr. James G. Corasanti's legal team have received a series of life-threatening letters and telephone calls since Corasanti was acquitted of felony charges in a hit-and-run trial earlier this week, sources in the legal community disclosed on Friday.
Lawyers have reported the anonymous threats to police and also have told police about a disturbing letter that was sent to Corasanti during the trial, a member of the defense team said.
"With some of the letters and calls that came in, [Thursday] was a very unnerving day," said Cheryl Meyers-Buth, who successfully defended Corasanti with Thomas H. Burton and Joel L. Daniels.
"We're all right, though. This unfortunately can be part of the job for a defense attorney You don't like it, but it happens sometimes."
Meyers-Buth works for Burton in a downtown law office, and for years, has closely worked with Daniels on numerous cases in the state and federal courts.
In one of the most publicized local trials of the past decade, the three lawyers represented Corasanti, the driver of a car that struck and killed longboard skater Alexandria "Alix" Rice, 18, last July 8 on Heim Road in Amherst.
In a verdict that stunned and upset many people in Western New York, a jury on Wednesday acquitted Corasanti of felony charges of manslaughter, vehicular manslaughter, leaving the scene of a fatal incident without reporting it, and evidence tampering.
The 56-year-old physician was convicted of a misdemeanor count of driving while intoxicated, for which he could face up to a year in prison.
According to both Burton and Meyers-Buth, members of the defense team have been subjected to several telephone and letter death threats in the days since the verdict.
They declined to provide details of the threats but said they were disturbing enough that Burton gave some letters his office received to detectives from the Buffalo Police on Thursday.
Some callers on radio talk shows and people who responded to stories on The Buffalo News website have made extremely angry comments about the verdict, Corasanti, the jury and the defense lawyers.
Burton said that, in his opinion, the threats made to his office came from "nameless, spineless jerks" who never actually attended any of the trial to see or hear any of the evidence.
"They are anonymous cowards who could not shine the shoes of the courageous citizens who served on this jury in a very difficult case," Burton told The News.
According to Meyers-Buth, the legal team contacted Amherst Police about a "very disturbing" letter that was sent to Corasanti. She declined to give details of the letter.
Burton said Corasanti has taken his wife and son out of town for an undetermined amount of time. When asked if the death threats prompted Corasanti to leave town, Burton said: "I just think he needs to spend some time with his wife, and especially his son."
While Buffalo Police spokesman Michael DeGeorge declined to comment on the threats Friday evening, a law enforcement source familiar with the situation said detectives are looking into the matter.
Efforts to reach Daniels and spokesmen for the Amherst Police were not successful on Friday.
News of the death threats upset people in the Buffalo legal community, including Arthur A. Russ Jr., president of the Erie County Bar Association, and Robert N. Convissar, a well-known defense attorney who is a former president of the association.
"It's outrageous. Our criminal justice system is designed to protect the rights of the accused," Russ said. "To blame defense attorneys for doing their job is wrong. Legal representation is one of the rights guaranteed by our U.S. Constitution."
Regardless of how anyone feels about the verdict, Daniels, Meyers-Buth and Burton were doing their jobs when they defended Corasanti, Convissar said. He said he has noticed that some people are extremely critical of defense lawyers until they or someone in their family need a defense lawyer's help.
"It's regrettable that our society has devolved to this point," Convissar said. "It's a terrifying thing. It's a form of terrorism, using threats to try to stop people from doing their jobs. It's our job to zealously defend our clients, whether they're popular with the public or not. We need to be especially zealous when the clients are unpopular."
Convissar recalled that he received some very disturbing emails in 2009, after he represented a young Lackawanna woman who put her newborn baby in a shoe box and left her in a garbage tote, where the infant died.
The woman, Alicia Zebrun, was initially charged with murder, but with Convissar's help, pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of manslaughter and was sentenced to prison for one to three years.
"[Threats] are an occupational hazard for defense attorneys, but they shouldn't be," Convissar said.