Conviction reversal results in legal mal suit against Wood Co. firm

By Lawrence Smith | Nov 20, 2009

PARKERSBURG - A Wood County man whose conviction for providing alcohol to minors was overturned by the state Supreme Court earlier this year is suing the law firm that represented him for legal malpractice.

The law firm of George L. Cosenza PLLC is named in a two-count legal malpractice lawsuit filed by Jeff Corra. In his complaint filed in Wood Circuit Court on Aug. 31, Corra, 53, a Vienna resident, alleges that the Cosenza law firm, which is exclusively owned by George L. Cosenza, sat idly by while the prosecution grossly mischaracterized his involvement in an impromptu party that later resulted in the deaths of two men.

According to court records, Corra was indicted by the Wood County grand jury in September 2006 on nine counts of providing alcoholic liquors to a minor. The indictments came a month after Courtney McDonough and Morgan Brown were injured, and Joshua Tucker and Matthew Humphreys were killed in a single-vehicle accident on Aug. 6, after leaving Corra's home on Rector Road in which he allegedly served alcohol.

In January 2007, Corra would be indicted on a related charge of involuntary manslaughter.

Prior to, and during his trial, Corra maintained his innocence saying that while the four did come by his home the evening of the accident to visit his daughter, Ashley, McDonough, the driver, snuck and consumed a Coors Light beer from his refrigerator while he was outside clearing, and burning brush. Also Corra alleged unbeknownst to him at the time, McDonough left his home, used a fake ID provided by Tucker to purchase Budweiser beer and Jagermeister from a nearby convenience store, and later returned to Corra's home where she drank another six to seven beers.

In his suit, Corra alleges Cosenza failed to provide him "with effective and meaningful representation." This included failure to challenge the transfer of the charges from magistrate to circuit court, move for judgment of acquittal until after Corra was convicted and, during he course of trial, challenge the insufficiency of the evidence.

During his trial, Wood County Prosecutor Ginny Conley, who personally handled the case, did not hide the fact that it was beer, not liquor, Corra allegedly served. He maintains that Cosenza not only didn't object to the fact furnishing beer to a minor is a separate statute, but also Conley couldn't provide any evidence Corra was responsible for providing any alcohol, including beer, to the four underage adults.

Though he does not provide specifics, Corra alleges during his trial, Cosenza failed to assert "at least one instance of prosecutorial misconduct, which the trial court found had been waived." Furthermore, Corra alleges Cosenza "allowed his professional friendships and relationships with representatives of the prosecuting attorney's office to affect adversely this judgment and compromise his representation."

Records show Corra was convicted by a jury on four counts of "knowingly furnishing alcohol to underage persons." In August 2007, he was sentenced on each count to 10 days in jail, and a $100 fine with the sentences to run consecutively.

Due process lacking

A month later, Corra fired Cosenza as his attorney, and hired Charleston attorney Jim Cagle to help him pursue an appeal. Citing the failure of the prosecution to meet its burden due to variance of the statutes, and the insufficiency of evidence he knowingly furnished any alcohol to the four, the Supreme Court on Feb. 27, unanimously reversed Corra's conviction.

In offering the Court's opinion, Justice Menis E. Ketchum said Corra's conviction was a result both Conley's and Cosenza's ambivalence for due process.

"We begin by noting that, from our review of the record," Ketchum said, "it is apparent that neither the prosecutor nor defense counsel read the statutes relating to the crime of furnishing 'alcoholic liquors' before the jury reached its verdict. The prosecutor mistakenly informed a busy trial judge that beer was the same as alcoholic liquor for the purpose of proving the indictment."

"Likewise," he continued, "it is not disputed that when the circuit court asked at the charge conference whether he should instruct the jury on the definition of alcoholic liquor, defense counsel stated that an instruction was not necessary because beer was an alcoholic liquor."

On a motion filed by Jason Wharton, who succeeded Conley as prosecutor in last year's general election, asked that the involuntary manslaughter charge, which was never set for trial, be dismissed. In his motion filed in September, which Judge Robert A. Waters subsequently granted, Wharton cited the Court's February decision.

Because Cosenza failed to mount a zealous defense in his case, Corra alleges he's needlessly spent money not only to defend himself, but also hire another attorney to correct mistakes both Conley, and Cosenza made. In his suit, Corra seeks unspecified damages, court costs, attorney fees and interest.

He is represented by Charleston attorney Jeffrey V. Mehalic.

Answer and counterclaim

Records show Cosenza since has filed an answer to Corra's suit.

In his answer filed Oct. 2, Cosenza denied nearly all of Corra's allegations. He maintains he "used proper trial discretion in the exercise of his professional obligations" and the Supreme Court's reversal was based on errors committed by Conley, not him.

In addition to his answer, Cosenza filed counterclaim against Corra. In it, he alleges Corra owes him $12,139.40 beyond the initial retainer he paid on Sept. 1, 2006.

Cosenza is represented by Stephen R. Crislip and Ben M. McFarland with the Charleston office of Jackson Kelly. The case is assigned to Judge J.D. Beane.

Wood Circuit Court, case number 09-C-426

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