Exculpatory? Evidence not admitted in abduction trial
Local law enforcement and lawyers are abuzz about a recent abduction trial in which they say the prosecution did not allow evidence that would have cast serious doubt about the alleged victim's story.
Criminal defense attorney Ford Childress calls it a "miscarriage of justice" that led to the May 24 conviction of his client, former Food Lion manager Mark Weiner, when two police officers were ready to testify that cellphone tower records did not corroborate the alleged victim's tale of being abducted, drugged, and then escaping from an abandoned house.
The alleged incident took place December 13 when Weiner gave 20-year-old Chelsea Steiniger a ride home from the Lucky Seven parking lot on a cold winter's night. During the four-day trial, Steiniger testified that she texted her boyfriend that she'd found a ride, and that Weiner "tried to get in [her] pants," according to an account of the trial in the Daily Progress.
Steiniger told the jury that Weiner drove past her mother's Carriage Hill apartment on Pantops and he put a cloth over her face. She said she woke up in an abandoned house near Shadwell, escaped, and walked home to her mother's.
While she was allegedly held captive, her boyfriend received taunting texts from her phone with messages such as, "She's so sexy when she's passed out," according to media reports of the trial. He called 911, and Weiner was arrested December 14.
According to defense attorney Childress, Commonwealth's Attorney Denise Lunsford "sought the advice of two respected detectives in the city and the county" to check cellphone tower records to pinpoint from where the text messages came, and both detectives separately concluded the texts originated from an area close to where Steininger's mother lived on Pantops, not the abandoned house in Shadwell.
Charlottesville Detective Blaine Cosgro was the first one to analyze the records and he told Lunsford there was a problem with the case, says Childress. While the trial was going on, she then consulted Albemarle Detective Mark Belew, who came to the same conclusions, according to Childress.
The jury heard neither men's testimony. Childress says he tried to use Cosgro as a defense witness, and Lunsford had him disqualified as an expert. "It's ironic," he says. "She asked for his advice, and when she got it, she said [Cosgro] wasn't qualified." Childress says he didn't learn Belew had also analyzed the information and pinpointed a Pantops origination until after the case had gone to the jury.
"Denise Lunsford said it was exculpatory, but it wasn't her obligation to give it to me" because she had presented her case, says Childress.
"I believe the jury would have had an entirely different outcome had they heard Cosgro's testimony," says Childress.
While the jury was deliberating, Detective Belew told Judge Cheryl Higgins that AT&T records put Steiniger's cellphone in a location closer to her mother's house than the abandoned house during the time the taunting texts were sent to her boyfriend, and that he'd prepared the information at Lunsford's request. Neither Cosgro nor Belew responded to phone calls from the Hook.
In a phone interview with the Hook, Steiniger calls the police analysis of her cellphone records "bullsh*t." She says, "What happened to me, I'm lucky to be here right now. I want him off the street so he can't do it to anyone else."
Weiner, 53, was convicted of abduction with intent to defile, and the jury recommended a 20-year sentence. During the trial, no physical evidence was presented that connected Weiner to the abandoned house or Steiniger's cellphone, says Childress. Weiner has been held without bond since December, and will be sentenced in August.
"If Denise looked into this and talked to her detectives, she could easily correct this miscarriage of justice," says Childress. "I have faith in her fairness." He says he would like to see Lunsford join in his motion to set aside the verdict rather than force his client to go through the years-long appeal process.
"Denise Lunsford got the conviction, but the real duty of the commonwealth's attorney office," says Childress, "is to seek justice." Lunsford did not respond to a phone call from the Hook.
Childress says he's had at least a half a dozen cops approach him about the omission of the cellphone evidence. "Lawyers grab my elbow wherever I go," he says, "even in different counties."
There's a reason for the uproar, says Childress, a lawyer for 30 years and former Albemarle prosecutor: "That's not the way we do business here— not if you're trying to get justice."