Now we know why this guy was soft on James Corasanti.
He didn’t just feel the doctor’s psychic pain. He probably empathized with his drunken-driving ways.
John Jankowiak Jr. was on the jury that, to the community’s outrage, cleared the drunken-driving doctor of felony charges after he fatally struck teenage skateboarder Alix Rice on Heim Road in Amherst one night two summers ago and drove away.
Jankowiak offered a tortured, post-verdict rationalization to reporters of how he let Corasanti skate on even the obvious charge of leaving the scene of a serious accident. It earned Jankowiak and fellow jurors a pat on the back from the county Bar Association for “enabling the rule of law to triumph over the frenzy of public opinion.”
Or maybe Jankowiak simply overidentified with the drunken-driving doctor.
The 38-year-old health care worker was arrested early Saturday – for the second time in seven months – on a charge of driving while intoxicated. Orchard Park police did the honors after seeing his vehicle weaving at 4 a.m. near Milestrip Road. Ironically, he was apparently out celebrating a victory in Buffalo court hours earlier on an April charge of drunken driving. Jankowiak, in that instance, got so toasted at a bar that he reportedly smacked into a telephone pole on the drive home to South Buffalo, ran from police and – despite his claim of a concussion – had the presence of mind to refuse a Breathalyzer test. Police said he was so wasted at the station house that he peed on the bathroom floor, instead of in the toilet.
Granted, it was his first DWI arrest. Which, given his recent repeat, was almost certainly not the first time he drove while drunk – just the first time he got caught. Seeing firsthand during the Corasanti trial the pain and loss of life that a drunken-driving incident can cause apparently didn’t make an impression on him.
Despite the evidence, and the presumption of guilt that comes with a Breathalyzer refusal, City Judge Diane Wray swatted aside the misdemeanor DWI charge in the nonjury trial and convicted Jankowiak only of a violation. He was fined $375 and lost his license for 90 days.
It was cause for a Jankowiak celebration, capped off by another drunken-driving arrest.
Seldom has the credibility of a judge’s decision been so quickly obliterated. Jankowiak’s repeat performance raises – for the umpteenth time – the obvious question: What will it take for some judges to get tough on DWI?
“There still are a number of judges who, no matter what the proof in a DWI case, refuse to convict without a breath test,” said an agitated Frank Sedita III, the district attorney. “My philosophy is, you should not be rewarded for not taking the test. … We had four cops who testified that he was intoxicated.”
It gets worse. Because Jankowiak got off with a violation the first time, he cannot be convicted of felony DWI as a repeat offender for Saturday’s Orchard Park escapade. The wrist-slap from Judge Wray – who did not reply to a call to comment – is the gift to Jankowiak that keeps on giving.
This is obviously about more than one judge, one verdict. A series in The Buffalo News several years ago cited numerous soft-on-DWI judges throughout the county who commonly let drunken drivers plead to lesser offenses or hand stay-out-of-jail cards to frequent DWI fliers. Then and now, punishment for drunken driving largely depends on the attitude of the judge who gets the case.
“I think that most judges would have come back with a DWI conviction,” Sedita said of the Jankowiak case.
Among those angered by the Jankowiak saga is Richard Rice, father of the teenager killed by Corasanti. Rice told me that Jankowiak’s light sentence was “a classic example of why this continues to happen. When are we as a society going to understand that?”
I think society’s eyes are open wider today than they were a generation ago. Save for alcoholics and hard-partying lunkheads, driving while blasted is no longer the recreational sport that it once was for many. Yet carnage keeps coming. Whether the drunken-driver victim is teenager Alix Rice, or 7-month-old Baylee Dion, we all see the damage done. Tougher judges don’t just protect you and me from a drunk at the wheel of a 3,500-pound weapon. They might snap an alcoholic out of denial or force his or her family to step in.
Jankowiak took out a telephone pole in April, ran from police, failed an alphabet sobriety test and peed on a station house bathroom floor. For that, he was convicted of a mere violation.
Police say he celebrated his good fortune by getting drunk and driving.
There is a lesson in that – for every wrist-slapping DWI judge.