Ford Motor Co. today revealed plans to introduce as evidence in its unprecedented criminal trial here new Pinto crash tests which company lawyers have contended may shed a new light on the case.
The State of Indiana has charged Ford with "reckless homicide" in the fiery deaths of three teenage women when their 1973 Pinto was hit from behind on an Indiana road by a van in August 1978.
Ford is accused of knowing that the Pinto's fuel tank design was faulty and prone to explosion during rear-end collisions. By not informing the public of that danger and not changing the design, Ford must assume responsibility for the three deaths, the state alleges.
The revelations that Ford had performed new crash tests on its Pinto was made when defense attorney James F. Neal responded to a prosecution subpoena for Ford internal documents.
Neal said that he can't turn over final reports concerning new simulation crash tests, as requested by the prosecution, because "although we have done such tests, there are no final reports that were made. That was done at my direction."
Neal said that although there may be working drafts for eventual reports on the tests, he would resist turning those over to the prosecution because he considers them to be "work products."
Neal said he intends to introduce the results of the tests -- which he said were performed this fall at his direction -- during the trial, because they are "relevant and highly persuasive."
Jury selection in the trial opened today with attorneys from both sides quizzing prospective jurors about their opinions on everything from big business to consumer advocate Ralph Nader.
Two prospective jurors were discharged by Judge Harold Staffeldt because it appeared their employers wouldn't continue to pay their salaries during their jury service, which is expected to last at least two months.
Full jury selection now is expected to last much of this week, with opening arguments probably coming next Monday, at the 84-year-old Pulaski County Courthouse here. Each side is allowed to veto up to 10 jurors without cause.
Much of the questioning by both sides was a clear attempt to establish whether prospective jurors were biased for or against the Ford Motor Co., large corporations in general, government regulation or consumer rights.
Court had been in session only a few moments before the two sides clashed even prior to the first jury candidate entering the room.
Neal asked Judge Staffeldt to move the attorneys' podium back from its position directly in front of the jury box. But prosecutor Michael Cosentino balked, contending that he needed to be close to the jury during questioning, a style he said he had employed constantly during his 18 years of prosecution.
Neal then responded that Cosentino would be blocking the defense's view of the response of potential jurors to Consentino's questioning.
"This is nothing but a sham by Ford to try to upset the state's picking of the jury," Cosentino retorted angrily.
A compromise was worked out, with the prosecutor agreeing to stand back from or to the side of, the jury box while questioning.
The fierce independence of the people in this rural county (population 12,500) came out during the questioning. One jury candidate, Charles Lee of Salem, Ind., expressed the belief that big corporations "don't care if we live or die." But when asked who should decide what kind of safety features should be offered in cars, Lee said "the auto industry."
When asked if he had heard of Ralph Nader, Lee said "The name rings a bell, but I can't place it."
One prospective juror, Raymond Schramm, 41, of Minamac, said he owned a 1976 Pinto, prompting Cosentino to ask, "Would the fact that you drive a Pinto have an effect on how you viewed this case?"
"I don't think so," Schramm quickly responded. "I used to drive a Corvair."