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How jurors reached Corasanti verdict

The jurors believed Dr. James G. Corasanti was drunk.

He left the scene after the BMW he was driving struck and killed Alexandria "Alix" Rice on Heim Road in Amherst.

So why wasn't he convicted of any felony charges?

It wasn't that prosecutors or police made some crucial mistake that doomed the entire case, or that defense attorneys overwhelmed jurors with their colorful, witty presence.

Jurors insist it was the evidence, the laws and their doubts.

The leaving-the-scene charge was the one they struggled with the most, jurors said. It also was the acquittal on that charge that appears to have angered the community the most.

"I can understand the rage that our community feels about this," said juror John Jankowiak Jr., 36, of Buffalo, the father of a teenage daughter.

"I absolutely believe Dr. Corasanti did not stop his vehicle because he had been drinking. The problem is, he most likely had no clue what he struck at all."

In fact, Jankowiak said, "the problem that I had is that I felt there was too much evidence presented to us that indicated that the defendant most likely did not know what he struck."

So Jankowiak and the other jurors -- not convinced that Corasanti knew he hit a person -- voted to acquit him of that count.

The jury also acquitted Corasanti of charges of second-degrees

Defense lawyer emphasized the word 'accident'

manslaughter, vehicular manslaughter and tampering with evidence. Jurors convicted him of drunken driving.

Defense lawyer Cheryl Meyers-Buth wanted jurors to have one word on their minds during their deliberations: accident.

She repeated that word three dozen times during her closing argument.

"A terrible, tragic accident," she said.

Corasanti said he didn't know he struck the young woman.

There are reasons to believe him, although prosecutors offered reasons not to.

To win acquittal, the defense team crafted a strategy to convince jurors that the Getzville physician did not know what he hit and that his drinking did not cause the death of the 18-year-old longboard skater last July in Amherst.

Defense lawyers "poked holes in everything" prosecutors presented, said jury foreman William Nixon of Buffalo.

But they did more than that.

They used the BMW's expensive design and features to their advantage.

They portrayed Corasanti as humble and trustworthy, so jurors would believe what he said about what he felt and heard inside his expensive luxury car at the time of impact.

They sowed doubt about police who investigated the fatality and prosecutors who tried the case.

They worked, as well, to show that Corasanti's drinking that night did not cause the fatal incident.

And, more delicately, they made an issue of the young woman's actions that terrible night.

The Corasanti jurors, now being pilloried across the community, expressed disappointment at how the community reacted to their verdict.

They work mainly in blue-collar and service jobs. Half of them live in Buffalo; most of the rest come from the Southtowns. Among the jurors are a school bus monitor, welder, carpenter, a group home supervisor and a truck parts salesman.

Even before the verdict, lawyers not involved in the trial said the jurors' economic status or educational backgrounds did not matter the most.

"You just need people who are independent and independent thinkers," said Paul J. Cambria Jr., a criminal-defense lawyer not involved in the Corasanti case. "There are plenty of those who are at the lower end of the economic scale.

"I'm not a big fan of jurors with a lot of money, the country club people," he said before the Corasanti verdict. "I like the salt-of-the-earth people, who live everything every day, the kind of people who experience the world from the ground up."

In this trial, these jurors learned a lot about a car most of them probably cannot afford.

"There's no other car on the road like it," Meyers-Buth told jurors. "You just don't feel the road like you do in another type of car. You don't hear outside sounds like you would in other cars."

The 2010 BMW has features and design elements not found in most other cars.

The aerodynamic car is big. It weighs some 4,800 pounds and stretches 17 feet. The driver in that car sits 9 feet back.

"It's about the same weight as a Chevy Tahoe," she said. "And it's long, comparable to a Lincoln Town Car or a Cadillac."

"It's designed so the driver feels as little as possible," she said. "That's why it's so expensive."

The damage to the dark blue car's hood is one fact causing the public to wonder how Corasanti could not have seen what he hit.

In her summation, Meyers-Buth talked about that with jurors.

"Look at the hood," she told them. "Aluminum. It absorbs energy. And when that happens, what does a driver feel? Not what you think."

She said the car's hood has crush zones. The hood is designed to fold up on impact.

"There are holes strategically placed on the underside of the hood to purposely make those areas weak," she said. "In fact, if you look underneath where it buckled, you can see it bent where it was supposed to, where it was designed to bend, to prevent energy from being transfered back to the driver.

"If the hood were steel, it would be different," she said. "You'd see much less damage, but the driver would feel more of the impact."

The steering geometry in the car is also designed to keep it moving straight ahead, she said.

"It won't veer left. It won't veer right," she said. "Again, another specific design feature to minimize the effect of road hazards on the driver.

"That's why Dr. Corasanti said he could not feel anything from the way the car was handling to let him know he hit a person," she said. "The impact did not pull the wheel one way or the other. The car maintained its straight-ahead orientation."

But couldn't he see the damage?

From the driver's seat, he could not see the damage at night, his lawyers said.

Police took hundreds of photos of the car.

"They didn't show you a single picture from the driver's perspective," Meyers-Buth said of prosecutors. "You know why? Because Dr. Corasanti could not see the fold in the front of that hood from the driver's seat at 11:21 at night.

"Do you think for one minute that if you could see the damage, they wouldn't have taken a hundred photos to bring in here and show you to be able to say Dr. Corasanti lied about not being able to see it?"

But couldn't he hear the impact?

Corasanti said he heard something near the front right and under his car.

"No one heard a yell or any other sound that could fairly be said to give him cause to know he hit a person," Meyers-Buth said. "This car was designed to dampen outside noise. You don't hear outside sounds like you would in other cars."

The defense's mechanical expert testified how the car is designed to give a quiet ride.

"Nothing runs quieter," Meyers-Buth said. "And that's why it's top of the line."

"That's not to say the driver doesn't hear anything," Meyers-Buth said. "Dr. Corasanti said he heard something.

"Maybe you hear something, but you don't get it all," she said. "And that's the difference."

Jankowiak, juror No. 12, said the mechanical expert's testimony helped sway him.

"I did take into account the way the defendant's vehicle is designed to take an impact and dampen outside noise," Jankowiak said. "A picture of the defendant's car that was taken in the dark showed me that it was difficult to see the damage while dark, and it was probable that he could not see it from his driver's seat."

Nixon, the jury foreman, said the damage to the dark blue car's hood was more noticeable when you looked at the hood when standing in front of the car. But when standing behind the hood in the courtroom, closer to the driver's perspective, "I could not tell the hood was buckled up from back there," Nixon said.

There were no signs of swerving or braking that would show Corasanti reacted before or after hitting the longboard skater.

Of course, the lawyers also worked to show Corasanti's drinking did not cause the fatal incident, while acknowledging he did drink that evening.

The trail of leaking washer fluid from the damaged car helped police track Corasanti's whereabouts after the crash, but it also helped defense lawyers prove his driving wasn't reckless.

The trail started 280 feet west of the incident on Heim.

"Where did the fluid trail go?" asked Meyers-Buth. "Did it cross the center line? No. Did it go over the fog line? No. Does it show reckless or erratic driving? No way. Right down the westbound lane."

The damaged car leaked the fluid all the way into his neighborhood, straight and not near the curb.

"He didn't come close to any cars parked on the streets in the subdivision," she said. "The fluid path is some of the best evidence for the defense in this case."

The defense lawyers tried to make sure Corasanti was not the only one on the defensive throughout the trial. They worked to sow doubt about how the police investigated the fatality and how prosecutors tried the case.

When prosecutors did not call the first police officer who had talked to Corasanti by cellphone after the fatal incident, the defense lawyers asked: Why not?

"If Dr. Corasanti sounded drunk on the phone, why wasn't Officer John McGarvey here? If he slurred one word, why didn't we hear from him?" Meyers-Buth asked. "Officers like McGarvey, they know what to listen for. He knew it was a fatal. He knows he's talking to the driver of the car. If there was anything he could have said to show Dr. Corasanti had been drinking, you would have heard from him."

Defense lawyers also questioned the prosecution's sense of fairness.

"They know their theory is wrong," Meyers-Buth said of the Amherst Police Department's reconstruction of the incident. "We all know it. But still the prosecution rolls forward trying to convict Dr. Corasanti. Is that fair?"

And finally, and more delicately, the defense called into question the actions of the teenage longboard skater.

"Our defense team has tried to be very respectful of her famly and of her memory during this trial," Meyers-Buth said. "This was a terrible, tragic accident. We all know that. But you can't decide this case unless you know everything that happened."

Rice was low on that board, about 24 to 30 inches above the road, a small, dark figure, Meyers-Buth said.

"Where was she in the second before she hit [the] car? Did she dart out from the shoulder to avoid one of those sewer grates?" she asked. "Was she riding in the driving lane and just too late getting back over?

"Was there some obstacle in her path that she swerved to get around?" she asked. "Nobody will ever know."

During the trial, police officers and other witnesses referred to the area to the right of the fog lane as a bike lane.

"It's not a bike lane," Meyers-Buth said. "It's the shoulder of the road. But they want you to think that Dr. Corasanti should have had some expectation that he'd see a biker or a skateboarder in that area.

"Dr. Corasanti never expected to see a skateboarder because in the hundreds or thousands of times he had been on that road at night, he had never once seen one," she said.

Defense lawyers also portrayed Corasanti as a good, even humble, man who could be trusted -- not some rich doctor who does not care about others. Otherwise, his testimony would not have been believable.

"He started with nothing," Meyers-Buth said of his upbringing in Utica. "He made something of himself. Nobody gave him a dime. He made it on his own.

"Does he make pretty good money for what he does? Sure," she said. "You know why? Because he's the top specialist in his field."

When asked about his generous tips to a bartender at the country club where he socialized that evening, Corasanti said, "I try to be kind to people who are kind to me."

The $100 bottle of Silver Oak cabernet sauvignon that Corasanti ordered for his table seemed to work in his favor, too.

"I thought he was a generous man," Nixon said of Corasanti's gesture.

At times during his testimony, Corasanti cried on the witness stand.

"You saw how distraught he was," Meyers-Buth said. "He cried when he talked about Miss Rice. He wasn't crying for himself. I don't believe people can fake those emotions. You'd see through it."

It was an accident, she said in her closing argument.

"To be a doctor and know you took a life is a special kind of hell," she said. "The prosecutor likes to tell you there are a lot of things in this case that only Dr. Corasanti knows. Well, that's one of them. And he knows it well."