Albemarle County Circuit Court Judge Cheryl Higgins will decide in the next month whether to set aside the abduction conviction against former Food Lion manager Mark Weiner, who alleges in a motion filed by his new attorney that his May 2013 trial was marred by perjury by his accuser, errors by his trial attorney, and misconduct by Albemarle County Commonwealth’s Attorney Denise Lunsford.
In a May 1 hearing, Weiner’s Richmond-based attorney Steve Benjamin said that despite the harsh allegations contained in the motion, he had “no zeal” for attacking his fellow legal professionals. “It is impossible not to make mistakes,” he said, asking Higgins to set aside the verdict based solely on the “inherently incredible and internally inconsistent” story put forth by 20-year-old Chelsea Steiniger, who claimed Weiner abducted her in December 2012 and took her to an abandoned house in Shadwell where she awoke and managed to escape.
Among the numerous inconsistencies in Steiniger’s story, according to the motion and outlined by Benjamin in court, are her claim that she was instantly subdued in Weiner’s van by a chemical-laced cloth he held over her face—impossible, according to affidavits filed by two anesthesiologists—and her account of her cell phone use, which Benjamin said conflicted with phone records.
When Higgins declined to rule on the basis of Steiniger’s testimony alone, Benjamin proceeded to argue that Lunsford should have known Steiniger’s testimony was far-fetched, and he delineated evidence that Weiner’s trial attorney, Ford Childress, did not present to the jury.
Lunsford vigorously defended her own conduct in a response to Weiner’s motion, describing all elements of the argument to have the verdict set aside as “a poorly disguised claim of ineffective assistance of counsel,” and she disputed Childress’ claim that he wasn’t given access to a recorded conversation between police and an AT&T representative.
In a sworn affidavit, Childress made no effort to defend himself and instead supported Weiner’s assertion that he provided ineffective counsel, listing multiple occasions during the trial when he failed to enter evidence. In addition to failing to enter records regarding cell tower locations, Childress also said he found a matchbook with Steiniger’s cell phone number written on it inside Weiner’s van. Weiner had testified that Steiniger had given her number to him willingly when he dropped her off. Childress did not enter the matchbook as evidence, he wrote, even when the prosecution accused Weiner of lying about it on the stand. Childress declined comment, and Lunsford did not return C-VILLE’s calls.
Childress’ self-critical affidavit is “somewhat unusual,” said C-VILLE legal analyst David Heilberg, who described the motion as a defense attorney’s ethical duty to his client if he believes he made mistakes. “It is what should happen but maybe doesn’t happen as often as it should,” said Heilberg.
“Morally courageous,” is how Benjamin describes Childress’ motion. Benjamin declined to comment on Lunsford’s response pending Higgins’ decision, which she will announce at a June 3 hearing.
“While we appreciate that we received a full and fair hearing,” Benjamin said, “[Weiner’s] family remains very anxious about the court’s ruling.”