Historic passing

June 15, 2010
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This post was written by IL managing editor Betsy Brockett.

Many people may not know attorney Michael Cosentino, including young lawyers. But thirty years ago at age 44, he prosecuted Ford Motor Co., marking the first time a corporation was criminally charged for the way it designed and manufactured a product. Ford had been charged with three counts of reckless homicide for the deaths of three teen girls who died when the Ford Pinto they were in caught fire when it was rear-ended. Ford was acquitted, and the case was major news throughout the world at the time.

Mr. Cosentino died Monday.

I’m not a lawyer, but his actions impacted me. How? Because the case was venued from Elkhart County to Pulaski County. I was a junior in high school when lawyers and numerous media moved to Winamac (population 2,500 then and now) for 13 weeks. As a busy 16-year-old, I admit I didn’t pay a lot of attention to the goings on at the courthouse, despite the fact that local counsel was a friend’s dad and another friend’s mom was on the jury.

Fast forward 25 years. I wrote an article looking back at the case for Indiana Lawyer. I drove to Elkhart County to meet Mr. Cosentino, who had retired in December 2002 to private practice after seven terms as prosecutor. He was very generous with his time as he revisited that case for me, noting how it all began as a criminal case and ended as a products liability case.

He said he didn’t believe criminal law should intercede in such situations except in rare cases. Yet, he told me, “When civil law has no impact, that verdicts don’t mean anything, the criminal law should intervene.”

And so he made history. Even then, 25 years after the case was tried, he was still receiving calls from law schools throughout the nation about it.

When I talked today with Elkhart Circuit Judge Terry Shewmaker, who worked with Mr. Cosentino for more than 20 years, he had many good things to say and how Mr. Cosentino shaped many young lawyers through the years. He also noted how Mr. Cosentino was an avid fisherman and “he loved his family.” I remember during our interview he talked about the Ford case’s impact on his wife, Dianne, and their sons, who were 10 and 8 during the trial.

With Michael Cosentino’s passing, our legal community has lost not only a good lawyer but a historic resource.

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  • I remember
    I was a student at Valpo Law School when our criminal law professor and several classmates who were on Law Review were involved in the Pinto case. I and a fellow student, Tom Parry, offered to help and were given the task of researching precedent in other states on the issue of whether a corporation could be considered a "person" for purposes of criminal prosecution....a key issue in the case and a question of first impression in Indiana. We spent an afternoon in the library (pre-computer research) plowing through copies of legal reference books from all fifty states and found substantial precedent that said "yes" and... in the end.. that was the court's ruling....
    The entire trial became quite a vicarious experience for our whole class as we awaited the daily reports from our classmates who were clerking for the prosecution staff.
  • thanks for the memory
    Mike was a good prosecutor and served his public well.

    -- northern indiana resident

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  1. Too many attorneys take their position as a license to intimidate and threaten non attorneys in person and by mail. Did find it ironic that a reader moved to comment twice on this article could not complete a paragraph without resorting to insulting name calling (rethuglican) as a substitute for reasoned discussion. Some people will never get the point this action should have made.

  2. People have heard of Magna Carta, and not the Provisions of Oxford & Westminster. Not that anybody really cares. Today, it might be considered ethnic or racial bias to talk about the "Anglo Saxon common law." I don't even see the word English in the blurb above. Anyhow speaking of Edward I-- he was famously intolerant of diversity himself viz the Edict of Expulsion 1290. So all he did too like making parliament a permanent institution-- that all must be discredited. 100 years from now such commemorations will be in the dustbin of history.

  3. Oops, I meant discipline, not disciple. Interesting that those words share such a close relationship. We attorneys are to be disciples of the law, being disciplined to serve the law and its source, the constitutions. Do that, and the goals of Magna Carta are advanced. Do that not and Magna Carta is usurped. Do that not and you should be disciplined. Do that and you should be counted a good disciple. My experiences, once again, do not reveal a process that is adhering to the due process ideals of Magna Carta. Just the opposite, in fact. Braveheart's dying rebel (for a great cause) yell comes to mind.

  4. It is not a sign of the times that many Ind licensed attorneys (I am not) would fear writing what I wrote below, even if they had experiences to back it up. Let's take a minute to thank God for the brave Baron's who risked death by torture to tell the government that it was in the wrong. Today is a career ruination that whistleblowers risk. That is often brought on by denial of licenses or disciple for those who dare speak truth to power. Magna Carta says truth rules power, power too often claims that truth matters not, only Power. Fight such power for the good of our constitutional republics. If we lose them we have only bureaucratic tyranny to pass onto our children. Government attorneys, of all lawyers, should best realize this and work to see our patrimony preserved. I am now a government attorney (once again) in Kansas, and respecting the rule of law is my passion, first and foremost.

  5. I have dealt with more than a few I-465 moat-protected government attorneys and even judges who just cannot seem to wrap their heads around the core of this 800 year old document. I guess monarchial privileges and powers corrupt still ..... from an academic website on this fantastic "treaty" between the King and the people ... "Enduring Principles of Liberty Magna Carta was written by a group of 13th-century barons to protect their rights and property against a tyrannical king. There are two principles expressed in Magna Carta that resonate to this day: "No freeman shall be taken, imprisoned, disseised, outlawed, banished, or in any way destroyed, nor will We proceed against or prosecute him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land." "To no one will We sell, to no one will We deny or delay, right or justice." Inspiration for Americans During the American Revolution, Magna Carta served to inspire and justify action in liberty’s defense. The colonists believed they were entitled to the same rights as Englishmen, rights guaranteed in Magna Carta. They embedded those rights into the laws of their states and later into the Constitution and Bill of Rights. The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution ("no person shall . . . be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.") is a direct descendent of Magna Carta's guarantee of proceedings according to the "law of the land." http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/featured_documents/magna_carta/

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