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Low-key lawyer turns ultimate defender Argues case decisively in Corasanti drama

Late on the night of July 8, 2011, attorney Cheryl Meyers Buth got a telephone call at her home from her boss, Thomas H. Burton.

There had been a hit-and-run incident in Amherst, involving Dr. James G. Corasanti, Burton's client and close friend. Burton needed Meyers Buth to drive out to Corasanti's Getzville home, talk with him about what happened and help him deal with law enforcement.

"I've gotten calls like that many times," said Meyers Buth, an attorney since 1994. "The client has a problem and needs our help. I really didn't know much about it when I drove out there to see him."

She certainly didn't know that the case involving Corasanti, then 55, whose BMW struck and killed skateboarder Alexandria "Alix" Rice, 18, would generate one of the most controversial trials in Buffalo in decades.

And she had no way of knowing she would play a central role in the trial, delivering a closing argument that helped Corasanti avoid felony convictions that could have sent him to prison for many years.

Erie County Court jurors acquitted Corasanti on felony charges of manslaughter and vehicular manslaughter, tampering with physical evidence, and leaving the scene an incident without reporting, resulting in death. They found him guilty on a misdemeanor count of driving while intoxicated, for which he could face up to a year in jail. He could have been sent to prison for more than 20 years if convicted of all the felonies.

Professionally, the verdict was a major triumph for Meyers Buth, a low-key defense lawyer who is not nearly as well-known as her two co-counsels, Burton and Joel L. Daniels.

On a personal level, she said, it's hard for her to stop thinking about all the pain the case has caused, especially for Rice's family.

"I could not look at her family during the trial," said Meyers Buth, who has been the target of threatening letters and phone messages since the controversial verdict. "I can't imagine what it would be like to lose a child. I had a job to do. I couldn't let emotions take over."

Many people in the region are outraged by last week's verdict, calling it a case of a wealthy man buying his way out of a legal nightmare by hiring a cadre of top lawyers.

But within the city's legal community, many people are happy for Meyers Buth, who has quietly worked behind the scenes on dozens of major cases with Daniels, Burton and other high-profile lawyers, including Paul J. Cambria Jr., Herbert L. Greenman and Joseph M. LaTona.

"Cheryl was the secret weapon for the defense team," said Cambria, who was Meyers Buth's boss in the mid-1990s. "It's great to see her getting some recognition, and she deserves it."

According to Cambria, after a hard-fought trial that featured some "snarky" remarks by prosecutors, Meyers Buth was the perfect person to address the jury in the closing argument for the defense.

"She got up before the jury and calmly went through the facts of the case with them, telling them, 'OK, let's take a look at what happened here,' " Cambria said. "I think she did a tremendous job."

That's because she studied the jury.

"I wanted to be the one to do the closing argument, and to their credit, Joel and Tom agreed to let me do it," Meyers Buth said. "I had been watching the jury closely throughout the trial, and I thought I could reach them."

Meyers Buth said the Corasanti trial is probably the most highly publicized case she has ever worked on, but the University of Toledo College of Law graduate has been involved in many other high-profile cases.

With Burton, she successfully represented Amherst homeowner David D'Amico, who tragically shot and killed teacher David W. Park in March 2010.

Park, who was intoxicated but unarmed, illegally entered D'Amico's home after leaving a party at a house next door. D'Amico, who did not know Park, said he shot the teacher because he thought he was a burglar who would harm him and his wife. After an extensive investigation, a grand jury found no cause for criminal charges against D'Amico.

Meyers Buth estimates that she has worked with Daniels on "at least 100" criminal cases in the federal, state and local courts.

Their clients included Damone Brown, a former Syracuse University basketball star who was sentenced to probation last year after he was caught laundering money for a drug gang; former Niagara Falls Mayor Vince Anello, who spent 13 months in federal prison after filing false documents that enabled him to boost his earnings from an electricians union; and Timothy J. Toohey, a disbarred attorney who admitted embezzling $202,000 from the gambling corporation of the Seneca Nation of Indians.

She also worked on a defense team with Daniels in the 1994 Kevin King homicide in Olean, a beating death that resulted in the convictions of seven people.

Meyers Buth, 45, has worked on many cases involving violent slayings, drugs, sexual assault, child pornography, fraud and other crimes. She also represented many police officers accused of wrongdoing and, in one unusual case, the operators of a Chautauqua County animal preserve who were convicted of illegally buying a leopard.

She said she occasionally meets people who criticize her for representing violent criminals.

"I tell them that, as a defense lawyer, I am only one small part of the criminal-justice system," Meyers Buth said. "If I do my job properly, and the police, the prosecutors, the judges and the jury all do their jobs properly, things will work out as they should.

"No matter what a person is accused of doing, they have the constitutional right to good legal representation."

One such person, she said, is Corasanti, whom she likes and describes as a warm, caring man who will forever be haunted by his accidental killing of Rice.

"He's a doctor who has devoted his career to helping people, saving lives. He feels terrible about what happened that night," Meyers Buth said. "The fact that he went to trial on this case doesn't mean that he doesn't care about [Rice] or her family. He didn't plead guilty because he wasn't going to get up before a judge and say, 'I knew I hit a human being, and I drove away, anyway.' He told us, again and again, that he didn't know he hit a person."

Because Corasanti faces an upcoming sentencing and also a civil trial, Meyers Buth declined to discuss some issues of the case. She would not comment when asked why Corasanti refused a police request to take an alcohol breath test about two hours and 20 minutes after his car hit Rice.

Meyers Buth grew up in West Seneca and graduated from Mount Mercy Academy in South Buffalo, where she was an all-star softball and basketball player. She became interested in the law while taking a course in constitutional law at the University at Buffalo.

While she works hard to keep people out of prison, her husband since 1999, Neil B. Buth, keeps them inside. He is a state corrections officer at Attica Correctional Facility.

"In 2004, my husband was stabbed five times by an inmate, who stabbed him as part of a gang initiation rite, where he was supposed to try to kill an officer," Meyers Buth recalled. "Driving to see Neil in the hospital was the longest ride of my life."

She said she and her husband each respect the other's role in the criminal-justice system. "He understands my job, and I understand his," she said.

Meyers Buth, who will serve as a state delegate at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., in September, has some strong feelings about the roles of women in the courts and government in Buffalo. She feels that women have a tougher time than men breaking into important roles in their fields.

"We've never had a woman county executive in Erie County, never had a woman district attorney, never had a woman mayor in Buffalo, never had a woman serve as a federal district judge," she said. "In terms of women moving up, I think we have a lot of work to do in this community."

Meyers Buth said she hopes to become the kind of attorney who will inspire young women to go to law school.

She also hopes that -- eventually -- the people of Western New York will forgive Corasanti for the death of Alix Rice.

"For the most part, I think Buffalo is a very forgiving community, especially if people are truly sorry for what they have done," she said. "Dr. Corasanti is sorry, and I think he will devote the rest of his life to helping people. I hope people will forgive him, but first, he has to forgive himself."

email: dherbeck@buffnews.com