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Trial raised awareness of drunk-driving dangers

If there's anything positive to be found in the very public trial of Dr. James G. Corasanti, it's in the heightened awareness of the dangers of drinking and driving.

That's what leaders of two organizations that fight against drunk driving and the Erie County district attorney say, even though they were disappointed in the verdicts reached this week.

"It's definitely increased the awareness of drunk driving and its horrible and tragic consequences," said Elizabeth Obad, president of the Erie County chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Deanna Russo, founder and executive director of Crusade Against Impaired Driving, agreed.

"My hope is that more people will think about the consequence of drinking and driving. It has had people questioning and thinking about what they would have done, and that's a good thing," she said.

Corasanti was convicted of driving while intoxicated, a misdemeanor, but acquitted of vehicular manslaughter and other felony charges. Corasanti's BMW struck and killed Alexandria "Alix" Rice on her skateboard last July in Amherst before driving away without stopping.

Obad, whose son also was left by the side of the road after being killed by a drunk driver, said she has heard from numerous people bewildered by the verdict.

"They cannot believe the jury found him guilty of DWI but didn't think his drinking was related to leaving the scene of the crime, or not realizing he struck someone," Obad said.

She added, "I feel sick at heart for the family."

Russo, whose Western New York-based organization addresses drugs and driving distractions such as phone calls and texting -- in addition to alcohol use -- said she was encouraged by the public reaction.

"The one thing that gives me hope is the fact that everyone is so upset at the verdict," Russo said.

The trial hit close to home for her, too. Russo's 18-year-old sister, Karen Kwiatkowski, was killed in a head-on collision in March 1998 by a drunk driver in South Buffalo who left the scene.

District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III said he also hopes that the public will learn a lot about the consequences of drinking and driving from the Corasanti trial.

"Hopefully, all the public attention to this case raises public awareness so we have less of these cases," the prosecutor said.

"You would think so, but in the middle of the Corasanti trial, one of the jurors goes out and drinks all day and gets a 2.5 [percent blood alcohol reading] and takes out a telephone pole and leaves the scene of the accident. And that's a juror! On a case where a physician is charged with drunk driving and vehicular homicide and also left the scene," Sedita said.

The district attorney said he has noticed, anecdotally, that people seem to be more careful about drinking and driving. But at the same time, he said, 22 percent of felony cases in 2011 were DWI vehicular offenses, and another 15 percent involved drivers on narcotics.

"One way to look at it is, 'Oh my God, 37 percent of the felonies in the county are substance abuse.' What are we doing? What does that say about our culture around here?" Sedita said.