The Pinto jury read today a record of Ford Motor Co.'s 1973 conviction on 350 counts of violating the Clean Air Act.
Prosecutor Michael Consentino offered the record "to attack the credibility and character of the defendant regarding its truthfulness."
Trial Judge Harold Staffeldt ruled the document admissible, despite Ford attorney James Neal's argument that it was irrelevant to the reckless homicide case in which Ford is charged with criminal negligence in the design of the Pinto.
Further, Neal maintained, previous criminal records are admissable only to impeach the testimony of a witness and that Ford's conviction could be admitted only if the auto maker put on the stand a person directly involved in the violation.
The charges against Ford stem from the August 1978 crash in which three young women burned to death when their 1973 Pinto exploded after it was struck from behind by a van.
To counter the effect of the conviction record, Neal called to the stand Herbert Misch, Ford vice president of enviromental and safety engineering staff. Misch described events at the company from the first indication of wrongdoing in the reporting of emission test results until the time Ford admitted to the Enviromental Protection Agency that the results were flawed.
Misch said that when he learned on May 11, 1972 the company had two computer printouts that did not agree on maintenance work done to test vehicles, he contacted company President Henry Ford II at once.
Ford paid $3.5 million in fines after entering a plea of nolo contendere to charges making false and fictitious statements and representations on its emission test results on its 1973 cars.
"I don't know if the jury can get over the impact [of 350 counts of the conviction]," Neal said, adding it would be unfair because "Ford took the case to the government on a silver platter -- it blew the whistle on itself -- and said 'Look, we have a problem. Here's what some lower level employes have done.'" Neal described the incident as "Ford's finest hour."
The judge instructed the jury the conviction record should be considered along with other evidence to determine Ford Motor Company's credibility and not the credibility of any witness.
Misch testified he was told by Ford to "do what is necessary" to investigate the matter and then give the government his findings. The vice president said he worked all weekend and on May 16 met EPA official Eric Stork to inform him of the problem and request Ford's certification application for the tested engine be withdrawn. Ford also called Stork to the stand to verify Misch's testimony.
At the noon recess, referring to Ford's efforts to police itself, Neal said, "I have never been prouder of my client, the Ford Motor Company, and American industry. This lays to rest the morality issue" regarding large corporations.