A lawyer for Dr. James G. Corasanti cast 18-year-old longboard skater Alexandria Rice as careless and even reckless Thursday as he unsuccessfully sought to have the Getzville doctor's manslaughter charges dismissed and again as he began presenting the defense case.
"I mean no disrespect to that young lady's memory," defense lawyer Joel L. Daniels said in Erie County Court after the prosecution's 37th and final witness testified.
But Rice's skating back and forth across Heim Road late at night last July 8, without reflective clothing, "played some role in this tragedy," Daniels said.
Prosecutors have said Corasanti was drunk, speeding and texting on his way home from a country club outing when he fatally struck Rice in the bike lane at about 11:21 p.m. and then drove away.
Daniels tried to persuade Erie County Judge Sheila A. DiTullio that prosecutors did not prove that Corasanti was reckless.
"Who driving down Heim Road at night would ever expect someone to be on a longboard at that time?" Daniels asked the judge.
"This was an accident," the defense attorney said. "It was tragic. We all know that. The proof does not rise to the level of recklessness."
Prosecutor Christopher J. Belling told the judge that Rice was in the bike lane when struck by Corasanti's BMW, so that "takes away [the argument] she contributed to her own demise."
DiTullio rejected the defense motions to dismiss the charges against Corasanti, 56. So charges of second-degree vehicular manslaughter, second-degree manslaughter, leaving the scene of an incident without reporting resulting in death and two counts of tampering with physical evidence remain in effect.
Daniels contended that state law on hit-and-run incidents is imprecise and does not clearly tell drivers what they are supposed to do at such times.
"There's nothing in the statute that requires you to call 911," he said.
Daniels maintained that Corasanti did not know he struck a person when it happened, and only learned he did so when his wife went back to the scene and saw an ambulance and police cars.
When he realized what happened, he panicked, Daniels has said.
But after a neighbor put Corasanti on a cellphone with an off-duty police officer, the doctor did as he was told, surrendering at a local Noco station, he said.
"He did report to the first police officer he had any contact with," Daniels said.
Belling said: "The defendant did not ever report this crash."
"Within 10 minutes, the defendant knew damn well he hit and killed a person," Belling said.
"That's no report," Belling said of Corasanti answering questions from an off-duty officer when the neighbor handed him the cellphone.
DiTullio also did not dismiss the evidence-tampering count related to the deleted text messages on Corasanti's cellphone, even though the content of the messages was never recovered.
"How do you prove if it's evidence tampering if you don't know what the evidence was?" Daniels asked when seeking the dismissal.
The police did not take the phones until August, weeks after the fatal incident, he said.
Belling argued that the content of the messages did not matter -- just the fact that Corasanti was texting as he drove on Heim and then deleted the ones he sent and received near the time of the fatal incident.
"That's what's criminal," Belling said.
As for the other tampering count, involving a small piece of human tissue found on a step in Corasanti's garage, Daniels said, "There was no tampering."
"It was in plain view," Daniels said. "There was no effort to clean it up."
The tissue was no more than a foot or two from his car, and police easily found it and had it tested, he said.
"You don't have to be good at tampering," Belling replied. "You just have to tamper."
The fact police saw the tissue on the step "doesn't mean no tampering occurred. It just means the defendant didn't do it well."
DiTullio ruled that the jury deciding Corasanti's fate will not hear anything about his 1996 plea to driving while ability-impaired in Niagara County.
After a hearing to determine which portions of Corasanti's prior record can be brought out by the prosecution if the doctor testifies, DiTullio said his conviction 16 years ago "is remote" and would be overly prejudicial.
In that case, Corasanti registered a 0.16 percent blood-alcohol content after he told deputies he had been drinking champagne. He was ticketed for driving out of his lane.
"This is one of those situations where [prosecutors] should be allowed to inquire about this particular conviction," Belling said, because it showed Corasanti's tendency to put his own interests above society's.
The first defense witness was a 20-year-old Canisius College student who said he nearly struck Rice on Heim before Corasanti did.
Andrew Calabrese, of Getzville, said he swerved away from Rice on her longboard as he approached Heim from Dodge Road shortly after 11 p.m.
"I would have hit [her] if I didn't," he said under questioning from Daniels. "I knew I had almost hit that person."
Calabrese said he got out of his car and yelled toward Rice to make sure she was OK. She kept riding and did not stop, he said.
But even before Calabrese testified, prosecutor James F. Bargnesi asked why jurors should hear from the college student.
Calabrese's injury-free incident with Rice occurred almost a mile away, and he did not see Corasanti's fatal incident involving her.
"He saw nothing about it," Bargnesi said. "He knows nothing."
Daniels contended that Calabrese's incident "shows she was reckless" in how she was riding the longboard that night on Heim.
The Calabrese incident happened "very close, only a few minutes away" from where Corasanti fatally struck Rice, Daniels said.
Calabrese did not report his incident with Rice to Amherst police even after learning of her death the next day. But a week later he met with Corasanti defense lawyer Thomas H. Burton. Calabrese eventually met with Amherst police in March. He accompanied them to Dodge and Heim and described to police what happened.
Amherst police doubt Calabrese's version.
"It was the manner in which he explained it that didn't make sense," Kevin Murphy, a senior investigator for the Amherst Police Traffic Accident Investigation Bureau, testified earlier in the trial.
Jodi Luedemann, a forensic biologist for Central Police Services, was the prosecution's final witness.
She said Rice's DNA was found on the exterior of Corasanti's BMW, including DNA from skin cells found on the right front bumper.
But Corasanti's DNA was not found on the exterior, she said, which could support the defense argument that he did not wipe away blood or flesh from the car.
Luedemann also testified about the wet towel that prosecutors say police recovered from Corasanti's trash. An Amherst police investigator previously testified that it had a smell of human "decomposition."
Luedemann described the smell as an "extreme rotten foul odor" that required her to put on a second face mask.
She found more than 100 maggots on the towel, but she found no DNA on it.
And only one of the three small red stains on it tested positive for the "presumptive presence of blood," she said.
Burton described for her how police collected Corasanti's trash in an empty garbage truck and then put the trash in a police tote. Could something that had nothing to do with this case have touched the towel and contaminated it? he asked her.
"It's possible, yes," she replied.