The Elkhart County prosecutor who took on Ford Motor Co. in criminal court in Indiana died June 14. Michael A. Cosentino was 74.
In 1978, then part-time prosecutor Cosentino called a grand jury that charged Ford with three counts of reckless homicide. Three teenage girls were killed when their 1973 Ford Pinto caught on fire after it was rear-ended. Ford was indicted in September 1978. The trial began in early 1980 and a Pulaski County jury acquitted Ford March 13, 1980.
The idea of holding a corporation accountable wasn’t new, but Cosentino’s tactic of a criminal prosecution of a product design and manufacture was. Some say the case helped make today’s vehicles safer and drove home the notion of corporate responsibility into consumer’s minds like nothing had at that time.
Cosentino served seven terms as prosecutor before he retired in December 2002 to private practice at Cosentino & Christofeno in Elkhart..
“He was my hero, what can I say?” said Bruce Berner, Louis & Anna Seegers Professor of Law at Valparaiso University School of Law.
Berner was one of two people from academia that Cosentino added to the prosecution’s team for the Ford case.
“He was an absolutely true public servant. He didn’t get anything out of it; he was just doing the right thing,” Berner added. “… He was a good person to emulate.”
Berner, who noted that Cosentino’s health had waned in the past few years, said, “I’ll tell you what … you wouldn’t want to mess with him in his heyday!”
“He was a forceful advocate and a darned good lawyer,” said Elkhart Circuit Judge Terry Shewmaker in Goshen.
Judge Shewmaker started working with Cosentino as a law student in 1974. After passing the bar in 1975, Cosentino appointed him as a deputy prosecutor and an associate as his law firm. They worked together for more than 20 years.
“He gave me a chance, and I'm grateful for that chance. I feel very strongly about that,” he told Indiana Lawyer.
“He gave a lot of young lawyers chances as deputy prosecutors with appointments,” Judge Shewmaker said, noting many able trial lawyers got their start with Cosentino. “That will be his legacy.”
Born in Aurora, Ill., June 12, 1936, Cosentino was a U.S. Army veteran. He earned his J.D. at the University of Wisconsin Law School and was admitted to practice law in Indiana in May 1963. Among his activities, he was a member and past president of the Elkhart City Bar Association and a member of the Indiana State Bar Association.
He is survived by his wife of 46 years, Dianne; sons Michael J. and Thomas; and two grandchildren. The funeral was June 18 in Elkhart. Memorial contributions may be made to St. Vincent DePaul Catholic Church, Elkhart County Humane Society, or Cancer Services of Elkhart County.•
This story is an updated version of an Indiana Lawyer daily story.