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. The sad thing is that no fish were thrown overboard The "greenhorn" who had never fished before those 5 days was interrogated for over 4 hours by 5 officers until his statement was illicited, "I don't want to go to prison....." The truth is that these fish were measured frozen off shore and thawed on shore. The FWC (state) officer did not know fish shrink, so the only reason that these fish could be bigger was a swap. There is no difference between a 19 1/2 fish or 19 3/4 fish, short fish is short fish, the ticket was written. In addition the FWC officer testified at trial, he does not measure fish in accordance with federal law. There was a document prepared by the FWC expert that said yes, fish shrink and if these had been measured correctly they averaged over 20 inches (offshore frozen). This was a smoke and mirror prosecution.

  2. I love this, Dave! Many congrats to you! We've come a long way from studying for the bar together! :)

  3. This outbreak illustrates the absurdity of the extreme positions taken by today's liberalism, specifically individualism and the modern cult of endless personal "freedom." Ebola reminds us that at some point the person's own "freedom" to do this and that comes into contact with the needs of the common good and "freedom" must be curtailed. This is not rocket science, except, today there is nonstop propaganda elevating individual preferences over the common good, so some pundits have a hard time fathoming the obvious necessity of quarantine in some situations....or even NATIONAL BORDERS...propagandists have also amazingly used this as another chance to accuse Western nations of "racism" which is preposterous and offensive. So one the one hand the idolatry of individualism has to stop and on the other hand facts people don't like that intersect with race-- remain facts nonetheless. People who respond to facts over propaganda do better in the long run. We call it Truth. Sometimes it seems hard to find.

  4. It would be hard not to feel the Kramers' anguish. But Catholic Charities, by definition, performed due diligence and held to the statutory standard of care. No good can come from punishing them for doing their duty. Should Indiana wish to change its laws regarding adoption agreements and or putative fathers, the place for that is the legislature and can only apply to future cases. We do not apply new laws to past actions, as the Kramers seem intent on doing, to no helpful end.

  5. I am saddened to hear about the loss of Zeff Weiss. He was an outstanding member of the Indianapolis legal community. My thoughts are with his family.

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