A Local D.A. Charges the Pinto with Murder—and Watergate's James Neal Comes to Its Defense
updated 02/04/1980 AT 01:00 AM EST
•originally published 02/04/1980 AT 01:00 AM EST
Their deaths might have been written off as nothing more than another tragic accident on America's lethal roadways, except that the car they were driving was one of Ford's infamous 1973 Pintos. Six months after the accident Judy Ulrich's mother, Mat-tie, received a cruelly ironic notice from Ford warning that her Pinto's gas tank might explode in a rear-end collision.
Now, in the courthouse of tiny Winamac (pop. 2,500), Ford Motor Co. stands charged with criminally reckless homicide. The case is unique in the annals of corporate law, and it pits a part-time county prosecutor, bent on holding the giant automaker accountable for a fatal accident in his district, against one of the country's foremost trial attorneys, former Watergate prosecutor James F. Neal. Neal, 50, has an estimated $1 million to spend, a legal staff of 80 and all the resources of Ford to back him up. Elkhart County prosecutor Michael Cosentino, 43, has a $20,000 budget, some consultants working gratis and a task force of fired-up law school volunteers. Neal is cautious in his optimism, but Cosentino shows no fear of being overmatched. "Neal may be a big name," says the prosecutor, "but he still puts his pants on one leg at a time. I came up from a very poor family and was able to persevere and become a lawyer, so I don't scare easily."
The Pinto trial, which began two weeks ago and could last six weeks more, is the biggest cause of Cosentino's career. It began for him long before it did for Neal—with a visit to the scene of the accident. "The van was hardly damaged," he recalls, "but the car looked like it had been run over by a steamroller. It just didn't make sense." Cosentino ordered state police to launch a fine-tooth-comb investigation—"as if it were a murder case." A month later he took the case to a grand jury. "With the information I had, I felt a moral obligation to press charges," he says. "Million-dollar civil judgments don't necessarily accomplish anything. Large companies take their tax deduction and go on their merry way. When the large manufacturer is no longer hurt by damage awards, criminal law ought to step in." Adds Cosentino: "It's kinda funny that I'm a conservative Republican involved in a case you'd think a flaming liberal would bring. I just believe in what I'm doing."
But so does Neal, a veteran of previous civil product-liability cases for GM, Volkswagen and Subaru. "It's not easy making a product in this country anymore," he says. "In the auto industry there is already pervasive federal regulation, and this case could subject every manufacturer to a multitude of different standards of safety." Every prosecutor in the country, he fears, could attempt to set another.
Still, the burden of proof is on prosecutor Cosentino, and it is formidable. He must show that the fuel tank design was extremely dangerous, that Ford was aware of it but intentionally neglected to do anything about it, and that the design led to the girls' deaths. He has lost some battles; Neal has thus far prevented him from introducing documents indicating that Ford knew the Pinto tank was unsafe. But having made it past the shoals of Ford's pretrial motions, Cosentino is confident.
The two lawyers' early backgrounds are remarkably similar. Both were small-town boys. Neal is the son of an Oak Grove, Tenn. farmer; Cosentino's father was a factory worker in Aurora, Ill. Neal was a scholarship football player for the University of Wyoming, and Cosentino went to Beloit College in Wisconsin. Both are graduates of good law schools—Neal was first in his class at Vanderbilt, Cosentino went to the University of Wisconsin. There the similarities end. After law school Cosentino moved to Elkhart, where he had relatives, to take over as prosecutor of the city court, while Neal joined a firm in Washington, bound for the big time.
Neal comes to the Ford case with the confidence bred by a headline-making legal career. He made his mark—and learned the virtue of fortitude—as a 31-year-old special assistant to then Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who put him in charge of prosecuting Jimmy Hoffa for jury tampering. "I didn't believe it," he recalls. "In court, every time I looked at Hoffa he was looking at me and giving me the finger. Someone apparently told him I had a hot temper. A hundred times in the course of the two trials he came up to me and said, 'When are you going down to the gym with me and just fight this thing out man to man?' " Neal kept his cool and got the first conviction ever won against Hoffa.
After JFK's assassination, Neal returned to Nashville. But in 1971 he was called back to Washington by Archibald Cox, who had just been named Watergate special prosecutor. Neal stayed in Washington until the Saturday Night Massacre, then returned two years later to lead the successful prosecution of Haldeman, Ehrlichman et al under Leon Jaworski. "That was good for my career," Neal says. "There will only be one Watergate case. Whether a man is a defendant or an un-indicted co-conspirator, you're trying him because you have to prove conspiracy, so you're trying the President of the United States. That doesn't happen very often."
Since taking on Ford's defense Neal has been commuting between his home in Nashville, Ford HQ in Dearborn and, now, Winamac. Weekends spent relaxing in his new home sauna and playing tennis hardly make up for weeks spent poring over thousands of pages of notes, charts and documents. "This has taken more of my time than anything since Watergate," he says. "I've had to learn so many things about so many disciplines—mechanical engineering, civil engineering, welding. Did you ever hear of the Hotchkiss suspension? The cable suspension? Track bars?" Even his legalese is becoming infected with automotive jargon. "This is a criminal case," he declares, "with the power train of a product-liability case."
Cosentino sees it the other way around, and he too is paying dues, skimping on his part-time private practice to make room for "thousands of hours of research" on Ford. (He confesses, though, that business has been off anyway in Elkhart, a recreational-vehicle-manufacturing town, because of the gas crunch.) Looking about his prosecutor's office—"Everything you see here is my own personal property, the typewriters, the books, the furniture"—Cosentino admits he sometimes feels like "a man with a broomstick taking on a tank. Whoever heard of the Elkhart County prosecutor? Who ever heard of Elkhart County?" But his hope is that the case will discredit the notion that "if you have enough money to hire the right lawyers, you'll get off." And he remains confident of his ability and his case. "Neal's a good lawyer and I think I'm a good lawyer," he says. "We'll know for sure when the jury comes in."