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An intolerable situation

Anyone paying attention knew there was a problem with the verdict in the trial of Dr. James Corasanti. He was driving drunk, he was texting, he plowed into an 18-year-old skateboarder, killing her instantly, and yet he was acquitted of vehicular manslaughter and leaving the scene of a fatal accident without reporting it, resulting in death.

It didn't make sense, and many people blamed the jury and Corasanti's lawyers who were, after all, only doing the jobs that the system expects of them. But what if the problem is with the law, itself? What if the law gives drunken drivers an avenue that may protect them if they leave the scene of an accident and, thus, may even encourage them to take that course?

That's what concerns State Sen. Patrick M. Gallivan, R-Elma, and he has proposed legislation to close what he sees as a deadly loophole in the law. It's an important step – another tool to fight both drunken driving and, for those like Corasanti who continue to do that, to deprive them of one of the benefits of leaving the scene of an accident.

Corasanti walked on that charge because he convinced jurors that he didn't know he had struck Alix Rice – even though the hood of his BMW was badly crumpled. The problem was, the claim was at least plausible. Corasanti was intoxicated. His attention was not fully on his driving. In a head-spinning turn of events, his inebriation and texting may have saved him from the consequences of his reckless decisions.

It didn't save Alix Rice, though, and it is intolerable that a drunken killer can get off on serious charges because he was guilty of one offense that may well have precipitated the others. Gallivan's proposed law would relieve prosecutors of the need to prove that a drunken driver caused an accident when the driver is already violating the law by operating a motor vehicle. Thus, the law would presume that a drunken driver who leaves the scene of an accident is guilty of that offense.

That may or may not be the best approach to solving this problem, but the problem is beyond dispute and, if nothing else, Gallivan's proposal is a good place to start considering how to fix it. There can be other approaches. For example, while the prosecution retains the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt, defendants in some cases can be made to assume the burden of proof.

Those cases involve certain defense claims, such as entrapment or self-defense. In those "affirmative defenses," in which the accused seeks to excuse otherwise illegal conduct, the defense has to prove its point by a preponderance of the evidence.

What would also be helpful is to update the laws so that even drunks believe it is not in their interest to flee the scene of an accident, fatal or otherwise. Corasanti appears to have benefited from his failure to stay at the scene of the fatality.

Had he stayed, he would not have been able to claim ignorance of the crash and the whole question of his liability might have changed.

Frankly, that kind of change in attitude is a tall order. People don't have to be drunk to want to escape the consequences of their misdeeds, and intoxicated people, by definition, are functioning – or malfunctioning – with compromised judgment.

There won't be an ideal answer to this problem – one that perfectly balances the needs of crime victims, their families and society as a whole with the still-necessary need to provide suspects with their constitutional right to the presumption of innocence.

But there can be an acceptable balance, and Gallivan has begun the search for one. We hope a Democratic member of the Assembly from Western New York will join with Gallivan to pursue this matter and resolve it as quickly as due diligence allows.