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Motorist says skateboarder was 'highly visible'; Corasanti team cites contradictions

A motorist who had just driven past teenage skateboarder Alexandria "Alix" Rice recalled being alarmed by a car speeding toward him and the skateboarder on the fatal July night last year because the approaching car was in the bike lane where she was riding her longboard along Heim Road in Amherst.

The motorist, Mark Rowland of Getzville, testified Friday in Erie County Court that Rice had crossed Heim in front of his car in a crouched position as she skated toward the bike lane.

"She was highly visible," Rowland said in the most damaging testimony yet against Dr. James G. Corasanti, who faces manslaughter charges in the fatal hit-and-run trial.

He added that she was riding her longboard "in a controlled fashion" as she reached the other side of Heim.

When the approaching car struck Rice, "there was this almighty bang," Rowland said. "It was ungodly."

In sometimes emotional testimony, Rowland and his wife, Jamie LaPierre, said they rushed to find Rice, 18, within a minute of the hit-and-run incident.

She was thrown so far from the point of impact -- more than half the length of a football field -- that they struggled to find her.

When they did, they found her with her eyes open but without any signs of life.

"I saw a face looking at me," Rowland said.

Rowland, a biochemist, said he checked for a pulse.

"Negative," he said, when asked by Christopher J. Belling, a senior trial counsel in the Erie County District Attorney's Office, if he found one.

Her head, he said, "was at a strange angle. It looked peculiar. It didn't look right," he told jurors.

In an opening statement Thursday, prosecutor James F. Bargnesi said Rice's neck was broken so severely that only her skin kept her head attached to her body.

Her arms, legs and neck appeared broken. Her feet were facing the wrong direction from her body, Rowland said.

Corasanti's defense team, meanwhile, sought to highlight the differences in Rowland's trial testimony from what he previously told police the night of the incident and later told a grand jury about what happened, in an attempt to reduce his credibility to jurors.

Rowland, for example, told police immediately after the incident that the hit-and-run car was a gray or silver Honda or Hyundai.

Corasanti, in fact, was driving a dark blue 2010 BMW 750.

Rowland said the reflection of his headlights on the BMW explains why he got the color wrong.

During cross examination, defense lawyer Joel L. Daniels' questioning of Rowland led to several testy exchanges.

"Sir, can't you just admit you got it wrong," Daniels asked.

"Absolutely not," Rowland said.

"Why is it so hard for you to admit you got it wrong," Daniels asked again, while Belling objected.

The questioning set a contentious tone throughout most of the trial's second day.

Defense lawyers objected to prosecutors' questions at least 16 times, winning only a handful.

Prosecutors objected to 21 defense questions, winning almost two-thirds of them.

Belling asked Erie County Judge Sheila A. DiTullio to sanction Daniels in the midst of one especially terse exchange during Rowland's two-and-a-half hours on the witness stand.

"You want to be helpful to Mr. Belling," Daniels told Rowland.

"Now I ask for sanctions!" Belling said to the judge.

"You are asking for sanctions? You?" Daniels shot back at Belling.

Rowland then said, "I want to be helpful to the truth."

Rowland testified that he and his wife were returning from Shakespeare in the Park at Delaware Park on July 8 when he spotted Rice skateboarding in front of his vehicle on Heim Road.

Daniels asked Rowland why he did not repeat during his testimony on Friday some of the statements he made to police or during his grand jury testimony. For example, he told the grand jury he first thought the skateboarding Rice was a shopping cart rolling on Heim.

Also, Daniels asked Rowland why he said he first spotted Rice hundreds of feet away from his car when answering a question by a prosecutor Friday, but that his statement to the police hours after the incident indicated he only first saw her when she was much closer.

Whether Corasanti saw the skateboarder will be an issue in the trial, defense lawyers have said.

If Rowland had indeed seen her from farther away, "Why would you leave that out?" when talking to police, Daniels asked.

"Maybe, sir, because I found an obliterated body lying on the side of the road," Rowland replied.

Eight witnesses have testified so far.

"We're moving along," DiTullio told jurors at the end of the court session.

Rowland said after he drove past Rice, he stopped to make a left turn off of Heim. That's when he saw Corasanti's car approach in the opposite direction.

"It was driving in the fog lane," said Rowland, who used the terms fog lane and bike lane interchangeably during his testimony.

A "majority of the car was in the fog lane," he said.

Once the car passed by, he turned off of Heim.

But then he remembered the skateboarder, he said.

Just as the thought of her crossed his mind, he heard the impact.

Rowland, who lives near where the incident occurred, said he turned his car around after hearing the impact, so he and his wife could help the 5-foot-5, 142-pound teenager.

He pulled his 2002 Saab up to where he saw the broken longboard and one of Rice's shoes on the road.

It was then, he said, that he realized, "I've gone from incident to crime scene."

"I got out of the car and started listening," he said.

It was quiet.

"I could hear nothing," he said.

"Where are you?" he recalls shouting. "Talk to us! Tell us where you are."

There was no sign of the car that had just struck her, Rowland said.

He said he looked along the side of the road and a nearby creek but found no sign of Rice.

When he looked up the road, he said he saw what he thought were some trash bags.

He walked in that direction, and then realized it was her body. He said he yelled to his wife to call police.

A recording of her three-and-a-half minute 911 call was played in court.

"A skateboarder was just hit by a car," LaPierre told the call taker.

email: plakamp@buffnews.com