Public outrage aside, Corasanti jury got it right
Thu, May 31st 2012 12:00 am
Though Burton's friend avoided a potential 23-year prison sentence after being acquitted of second-degree manslaughter in the death last summer of 18-year-old Alix Rice, Burton wanted to make it clear: This wasn't a victory, but a tragedy. Rice is dead, and no verdict by any jury was going to change that. Which is why it is so important that, despite public opinion to the contrary, the seven men and five women who decided Corasanti's fate made the absolute correct decision.
People don't want to hear it. The public at large is sickened over the acquittal of the man many said would walk free because of his money. The television and radio were filled last night with people crying - people who had never even met Alix Rice - expressing outrage that, in the words of so many, there would be no justice for Alix.
Before I get a barrage of hate mail, I'll save people the "what if it was your daughter" argument. I have a young daughter, and if the facts were the same, I would want the person who took her from me to suffer. I am an old school, eye-for-an-eye type of guy, and if somebody took my baby, I would want them to pay the ultimate price. But Alix wasn't my daughter, and so I am looking at the facts of the case as objectively as I can. If you are able to do that, acquittal is clearly the legally sound and, in fact, the only conclusion you reach.
Contrary to what many people believe, a defendant does not have to prove his innocence. There is a presumption of innocence throughout the process. It is the prosecutor's job to prove guilt - beyond a reasonable doubt.
There is a reason a jury has to reach a unanimous verdict. In a case like this, you are talking about a person's life. Twenty-three years in prison could conceivably be a life sentence. If you are going to lock someone away in prison, you want to be absolutely positive the correct decision was made.
So, overwhelming public opinion aside, imagine for a moment that throughout the trial, Dr. Corasanti is an innocent man. Then ask yourself; did the state prove its case - beyond a reasonable doubt? The answer is quite simply, no. There was a lot of circumstantial evidence. There are a lot of people who simply "know" that he is guilty. But the problem is, hunches, gut instincts and raw emotion don't convict people. Facts do. And in this case, the facts were not there.
I spoke to several attorneys last week as the jury was preparing to begin deliberations to ask how likely it was that they would remain impartial, unfazed by the massive attention this incredibly polarizing case was receiving. Surely they were aware of it, so how could public opinion not sway their decisions?
Veteran defense attorney Robert Convissar said it best.
"There are lives at risk here," he told me, "and the jury has an awesome responsibility in front of them."
The responsibility was to remain impartial, remain above the water cooler chatter, and review every fact, every witness, every piece of evidence presented in the case.
Convissar called jury duty "the greatest duty a citizen can perform," and he said jurors get the gravity of the job they are brought in to perform.
But back to the facts.
Again, I won't retry the case, but here is all of the reasonable doubt that was needed for an acquittal:
- There was not a single witness who saw the actual accident occur. While both sides presented experts to testify whether Corasanti drifted into the breakdown lane or Alix Rice drifted into the road, without a witness, there was no definitive proof. If she skated in front of his car, it is a tragic accident. If he drifted off the road because he was distracted or impaired, it could be a crime. Without a witness who can definitively say what happened, it is reasonable doubt. Acquittal on the manslaughter charge.
- Did the doctor tamper with evidence in the case? Maybe. Or maybe he deleted his text messages because that's what he does. None of us know what motivated any of his actions. Absent of any smoking gun text that said, "I just hit and killed somebody," and absent concrete proof that he was texting at the moment he struck Rice, there remains reasonable doubt.
- As for the second charge of evidence tampering, did the doctor try to clean the front of his car and remove a piece of human tissue? It certainly sounds like he did. But is it evidence tampering? If a reasonable person arrived home after striking something (we are assuming innocence here, as the law requires, and allowing for the possibility that he didn't know he hit a person) they would naturally get out to inspect the damage to the car. If you saw something on the front of the car, it would be reasonable to inspect it closer to see what it was. So, is it tampering with evidence, or is it the actions a normal person might take in a similar situation? That's a matter of opinion, but there is certainly reasonable doubt. Acquittal on both evidence-tampering charges.
- Did Dr. Corasanti leave the scene of a fatal accident without reporting it? People I've spoken with saw this as the easiest charge. Obviously he did, he admitted it, right? Wrong. If the jury believed that he did not know he struck a person, then he is innocent of leaving the scene. Clearly they believed the expert the defense presented (as well as Corasanti himself) that his luxury BMW, made to keep out noise and cushion impact, insulated him from knowing what had happened. If the jury believed he didn't know he struck a human being, there is only one conclusion: acquittal on the charge of leaving the scene of a fatal accident.
- Driving While Intoxicated. Guilty as charged. But if he was impaired, people are assuming that of course he is guilty of manslaughter? Not necessarily. According to the law, the prosecutors had to prove that her death was directly caused by Corasanti's being under the influence. This takes us back to the first point. Since it is impossible to know whether she drifted into the road, it is impossible to say whether alcohol definitively caused the accident. You could be stone-cold sober, and if someone darts out in front of your car, you could hit him or her. Absent an eyewitness, the jury was left with reasonable doubt that Corasanti's impaired state played a role in the accident.
As much as it pains people, last night, the justice system worked. Some may not like Dr. Corasanti because of his wealth. Some may not like him because of his demeanor in court. Many don't like him because of what happened that fateful night last July. But the justice system operates the same for every defendant. The jury is charged with being impartial, with judging the case based on the evidence, and if I ever find myself on the wrong side of the law, I don't want a jury making the popular decision, I want them making the legally sound one.
The tragic loss of Alix Rice is heartbreaking. No parent should ever have to bury his or her child. The best that we can hope for is that the end came quickly and that she did not suffer. But convicting anyone in the case was not going to bring her back. And worse yet, convicting someone outside of the bounds of the legal system as it is designed, would be not only be wrong, it would threaten the very system that we all could face someday.
The system worked. The jury did its job. But it doesn't make the outcome any more palatable for the family and friends of Alix Rice.
Perhaps they can find some form of justice in a civil trial. But my guess is, there is no real comfort after losing your daughter, your friend, your loved one. No conviction can bring peace, can put a family back together, can rewind the clock and erase a single, horrific event. And that is the saddest truth of all.