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. I work with some older lawyers in the 70s, 80s, and they are sharp as tacks compared to the foggy minded, undisciplined, inexperienced, listless & aimless "youths" being churned out by the diploma mill law schools by the tens of thousands. A client is generally lucky to land a lawyer who has decided to stay in practice a long time. Young people shouldn't kid themselves. Experience is golden especially in something like law. When you start out as a new lawyer you are about as powerful as a babe in the cradle. Whereas the silver halo of age usually crowns someone who can strike like thunder.

  2. YES I WENT THROUGH THIS BEFORE IN A DIFFERENT SITUATION WITH MY YOUNGEST SON PEOPLE NEED TO LEAVE US ALONE WITH DCS IF WE ARE NOT HURTING OR NEGLECT OUR CHILDREN WHY ARE THEY EVEN CALLED OUT AND THE PEOPLE MAKING FALSE REPORTS NEED TO GO TO JAIL AND HAVE A CLASS D FELONY ON THERE RECORD TO SEE HOW IT FEELS. I WENT THREW ALOT WHEN HE WAS TAKEN WHAT ELSE DOES THESE SCHOOL WANT ME TO SERVE 25 YEARS TO LIFE ON LIES THERE TELLING OR EVEN LE SAME THING LIED TO THE COUNTY PROSECUTOR JUST SO I WOULD GET ARRESTED AND GET TIME HE THOUGHT AND IT TURNED OUT I DID WHAT I HAD TO DO NOT PROUD OF WHAT HAPPEN AND SHOULD KNOW ABOUT SEEKING MEDICAL ATTENTION FOR MY CHILD I AM DISABLED AND SICK OF GETTING TREATED BADLY HOW WOULD THEY LIKE IT IF I CALLED APS ON THEM FOR A CHANGE THEN THEY CAN COME AND ARREST THEM RIGHT OUT OF THE SCHOOL. NOW WE ARE HOMELESS AND THE CHILDREN ARE STAYING WITH A RELATIVE AND GUARDIAN AND THE SCHOOL WON'T LET THEM GO TO SCHOOL THERE BUT WANT THEM TO GO TO SCHOOL WHERE BULLYING IS ALLOWED REAL SMART THINKING ON A SCHOOL STAFF.

  3. Family court judges never fail to surprise me with their irrational thinking. First of all any man who abuses his wife is not fit to be a parent. A man who can't control his anger should not be allowed around his child unsupervised period. Just because he's never been convicted of abusing his child doesn't mean he won't and maybe he hasn't but a man that has such poor judgement and control is not fit to parent without oversight - only a moron would think otherwise. Secondly, why should the mother have to pay? He's the one who made the poor decisions to abuse and he should be the one to pay the price - monetarily and otherwise. Yes it's sad that the little girl may be deprived of her father, but really what kind of father is he - the one that abuses her mother the one that can't even step up and do what's necessary on his own instead the abused mother is to pay for him???? What is this Judge thinking? Another example of how this world rewards bad behavior and punishes those who do right. Way to go Judge - NOT.

  4. Right on. Legalize it. We can take billions away from the drug cartels and help reduce violence in central America and more unwanted illegal immigration all in one fell swoop. cut taxes on the savings from needless incarcerations. On and stop eroding our fourth amendment freedom or whatever's left of it.

  5. "...a switch from crop production to hog production "does not constitute a significant change."??? REALLY?!?! Any judge that cannot see a significant difference between a plant and an animal needs to find another line of work.

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