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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  5. Linda, I sure hope you are not seeking a law license, for such eighteenth century sentiments could result in your denial in some jurisdictions minting attorneys for our tolerant and inclusive profession.

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