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Defying the odds, doctor fights fatal hit-and-run; Picks rare route in manslaughter case

Eight months ago, a defense lawyer for Dr. James G. Corasanti asked an outraged community not to jump to conclusions after the prominent Getzville doctor was charged with driving away from a teenage skateboarder he is accused of fatally striking with his 2010 BMW in Amherst.

"We are looking forward to telling our side of the story as soon as this case is tried," defense attorney Joel L. Daniels said at the time.

That day is fast approaching.

Jury selection in Corasanti's manslaughter case begins today in Erie County Court.

Fatal hit-and-run cases rarely reach trial. Defendants often plead guilty to leaving the scene of an incident without reporting resulting in death, and then try to whittle the prison sentence down from the maximum seven years they typically would face.

Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III on Wednesday would not discuss what plea bargain was available to Corasanti back in August, when the doctor stood behind Daniels outside the Amherst court building while the lawyer talked with reporters.

At the time, Corasanti was charged with driving while intoxicated and leaving the scene of a fatal accident. If he had pleaded guilty then, he probably was looking at anywhere from two to four years in state prison.

Instead, Corasanti waived a hearing in Amherst Town Court, allowing evidence against him to be presented directly to a grand jury, which, in turn, indicted him on manslaughter charges.

Corasanti, 56, now 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. Now, he could face up to 23 years in prison if convicted on the felony charges.

>Gaining rapport with jurors

Alexandria "Alix" Rice, 18, was on a longboard -- larger than a normal skateboard -- on her way home from her job at a Hopkins Road pizzeria when she was killed in the hit-and-run incident on Heim Road at about 11:20 p.m. July 8.

"Every case is unique," Sedita said. "Every case has different evidence. Every case has a different defendant. It's hard to generalize case to case."

Usually, fatal hit-and-run defendants plead guilty as charged, Sedita said.

"We generally do not offer a reduced charge," he said.

The potential benefit to a plea, however, comes when the judge decides punishment and could shorten a prison term.

Sunil Bakshi, a defense attorney who is not involved in the Corasanti case, said the doctor may not have seen enough of a benefit to taking a plea.

"I'm not privy to plea discussions, but there may not have been a plea offer enticing to Corasanti," Bakshi said. "He's going to trial for one of two reasons: There was no favorable plea, or Corasanti believes he has a defense to the case."

Corasanti's resources also might explain why he's going to trial.

Many hit-and-run defendants do not have the money to hire experts they would need to counter the prosecution's experts, said defense lawyer Daniel P. Grasso, also not involved in the Corasanti case.

"Even if you think you have a winnable case, most of these people don't have the resources," Grasso said. "He probably has the resources to hire experts."

What's more, it can be a daunting gamble to turn down a plea to a leaving-the-scene charge that carries a seven-year prison sentence and risk a manslaughter conviction if the grand jury comes back with higher charges.

"Most of them take the smaller exposure," said attorney Giovanni Genovese.

In the courtroom, Corasanti will have highly regarded lawyers on his defense team: Daniels, Cheryl Meyers-Buth and Thomas H. Burton.

Daniels, who so far has argued motions on Corasanti's behalf in the courtroom, won the New York State Bar Association's Charles F. Crimi Memorial Award for Outstanding Private Defense Practitioner in 2009. "Joel Daniels is just No. 1," said attorney Leigh E. Anderson. "He talks in a way jurors understand. He talks in a way that is riveting and grabs the jurors' attention. He talks to them like he's one of them."

Anderson said Meyers-Buth also can gain rapport with jurors.

"She's a skilled trial attorney," Anderson said. "She is polished and eloquent. She has one of the most important qualities a trial attorney needs: the ability to bond with jurors. She can talk to jurors in a way they can understand, not on some lofty plateau."

Burton is a former police officer and prosecutor who won an Award of Merit from the Erie County Bar Association. "Burton's experienced," Sedita said.

>Top prosecutors selected

Burton and Corasanti formerly served together as trustees at Erie Community College.

Sedita assigned two of his bureau chiefs to the case: James F. Bargnesi became head of the Homicide Bureau in 2009, taking over when Sedita was elected district attorney. Kelley A. Omel, chief of the Vehicular Crimes Bureau, has been on the Corasanti case from the very beginning.

"This is a homicide case," Sedita said, explaining his decision to put Bargnesi on the prosecution team. "I'm very confident in the abilities of both of the prosecutors."

Judge Sheila A. DiTullio, no stranger to major cases, will preside at the trial.

"Judge DiTullio has presided over this kind of high-profile trial before," Sedita said, noting her work on the trials involving the City Grill killings and the Good Friday slaying of Sister Karen Klimczak.

"She has really good control of her courtroom," Anderson said. "There's not going to be any grandstanding or posturing. She's not going to let that happen."