I remember well the last time I drove drunk. That's because I haven't done it since or come anywhere close. Nor will I ever again.
I backed into a tree outside Nietszche's on Allen Street and dinged my back fender. It cost a couple hundred dollars to fix, which I absorbed myself. It wouldn't have been right to do anything else.
It was 24 years ago. The woman I was seeing at the time chastised me–quite rightly–for not letting her drive us that night. She'd had a drink at the beginning of the evening, but she was, by then, clearly unimpaired by it. I'd had a little more and was "buzzed."
It was a tough period in my life. There was a long family illness that was irreversibly and sadly worsening, and I seized on a minor excuse to celebrate something, just to get my mind off it.
That little back fender ding was more than enough to change my life forever.
It was hard not to remember it when I read about the unthinkable Corasanti verdict. It was also hard not to remember that drunk driving is one of a vast number of things in America about which majority social attitudes have completely changed. In a 21st century where we have a black president and laws permitting same-sex marriage, people now growing up can't imagine how incredibly foolish people were about alcohol in the early and mid-1960s.
When I was young and blockheaded, almost everyone I knew drove impaired occasionally. I have, in fact, only one friend whom I suspect of always being stone-cold sober behind the wheel back then. It was, incredibly, considered almost cool among young people in that era –a symptom of being devil-may-care or some such thing.
Whether it was youthful bravado or a dimwitted presumption of privilege, I have long considered it a divine miracle of incalculable benevolence that none of us ever did harm to ourselves or others during that time.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving changed everything. It was a national difference-maker. The group was formed in 1980. Attitudes and laws have, accordingly, changed utterly under its influence.
It isn't that young people aren't still blockheaded and don't still celebrate alcohol ridiculously (MTV's "Jersey Shore" and the
movie "The Hangover" anyone?). It's that the concept of "designated driver" is no longer a fantasy. Nor is it all that rare for friends at parties to insist on driving home someone who is staggering to his car and dropping his car keys. I've done it for an alcoholic acquaintance. The woman I was with and I once literally shoved him physically into the back seat so I could drive him home. (He died of cirrhosis a few years later.)
It is that total sea change in America that accounts for the almost universal Buffalo horror and fury at the Corasanti verdict. It requires intellectual gymnastics for many to say, "There but for the grace of God," because of that radical social change.
That and the obvious fact that James Corasanti's acquittal on all felony charges was so clearly a function of wealth and privilege. He had two of the highest profile lawyers in the city. And they rounded up the sort of expert defense witnesses who cost money that other defendants don't begin to have.
What we are not likely ever to know for sure is whether a jury consultant guided the defense team through the voir dire process of picking a surefire acquittal jury.
In the O.J. Simpson trial –a long infomercial for every single member of the defense team–we eventually got around to the name Jo-Ellan Demetrius and discovered how much she did in advising the defense team on the jurors to look for. Her efforts proved to be golden. They were, in fact, crucial.
In Pat Lakamp's terrific Sunday Page One piece on why the jurors acted as they did, he described the jury as working "mainly in blue-collar and service jobs." Let's, then, assume they're not the kind who drink martinis at the country club and drive BMWs. In their Chevys and Fords and Hondas and Toyotas (let's say), they might well believe that a BMW is so well-made that you can't hear a sound inside it that was described as ungodly outside the car in the neighborhood. (My colleague Donn Esmonde's line seems definitive here: "It's a car, not a tank.")
I think we may have had a sneak preview of the verdict when, in the early days of the trial, there was, somewhat incredibly, one juror who had to be replaced because he was busted for DWI while on the jury.
You have to ask yourself: What are the odds when selecting fewer than 20 people to hear a case involving drinking and driving of having a juror so insensitive to such a basic issue that he'd actually get busted for something he'd later be expected to adjudicate?
Right then and there, I suspected that either a jury consultant was at work or a malevolently canny legal team that had figured out how to home in on exactly those jurors least likely to be horrified by the preconditions of what happened on Heim Road that night.
I feel terribly sorry for that jury–not a fraction as sorry as I do for Alix Rice and her family, but some. I'm sure they did their honest best. It isn't their fault if they may well have been selected–as much as possible–with the idea that they'd be drawn to wealth and a doctor's authority and would decide what they in fact did.
Nor is it their fault if, by law, they couldn't even hear in court of the prior DWI troubles of the defendant. Those were inadmissible on the grounds of being prejudicial.
I asked our wise old colleague Lee Coppola (a former prosecutor as well as News and TV reporter) where the strictness about past acts comes from in law, considering that most mature adults make sound judgments about others taking into account exactly those things that courts of law find "prejudicial." (If, say, you're a renowned philanderer, no one is going to be the slightest bit surprised to hear of your third divorce.)
He told me it's from Federal Rules of Evidence. He also pointed out something that should have been obvious to us –there was no character witness for Corasanti because the very act of calling one would open up Corasanti's past alcohol-related trouble as a prosecution rebuttal.
For former District Attorney Frank Clark to say to viewers of Ch. 4 that money wasn't the decisive factor in the verdict a whole city is having trouble living with is, I must admit, among the most foolish sophistries I've ever heard on a TV news broadcast.
It's the compound tragedy of the case—and everyone knows it –that a young woman died so needlessly, and that the man responsible had enough wealth and enjoyed enough privilege to evade serious legal consequences for his grievous actions.