No freedom: Judge denies motion to set aside Weiner abduction verdict

Mark Weiner's attorney Steve Benjamin leaves Albemarle Circuit Court on June 3, followed by members of Weiner's family, including his brother Michael Weiner, right. Photo: Courteney Stuart Mark Weiner's attorney Steve Benjamin leaves Albemarle Circuit Court on June 3, followed by members of Weiner's family, including his brother Michael Weiner, right. Photo: Courteney Stuart

The Albemarle County man whose abduction conviction has come into question after inconsistencies in his accuser’s story emerged will remain in jail after a judge shut down his bid to have his verdict set aside. Albemarle County Circuit Court Judge Cheryl Higgins issued her ruling today in the case of former grocery store manager Mark Weiner, citing a lack of legal precedent in denying the defense request and setting the stage for an appeal by Weiner’s Richmond-based attorneys, Steve Benjamin and Betty Layne DesPortes.

“What the judge said is that she was not able under Virginia law to consider evidence of actual innocence that wasn’t presented at trial no matter how flawed that trial might have been,” said Benjamin in a statement outside the courthouse following the hearing. “I don’t dispute that the judge feels that she is accurately, objectively, and fairly applying Virginia law. My criticism is with Virginia law. A man’s innocence, a person’s innocence, should always be the key to their freedom.”

Weiner was convicted in May 2013 of the six-months earlier abduction with intent to defile of then 20-year-old Chelsea Steiniger, who said she’d accepted Weiner’s offer of a ride from the Lucky 7 convenience store in downtown Charlottesville. She accused him of rendering her instantly unconscious with a chemical-soaked rag and taking her to an abandoned house in Shadwell. Steiniger testified she escaped out of a second-story window and made her way on foot back to her mother’s house two miles away, and said Weiner had taken control of her phone during the abduction to send taunting messages to her boyfriend. The motion points to numerous inconsistencies in Steiniger’s story including her account of why she didn’t immediately call 911 upon her escape.

The motion also cites cell phone tower records that suggest Steiniger was never at the Shadwell property that night and includes affidavits from two anesthesiologists explaining that there are no chemicals that would knock someone out so quickly and completely. Weiner’s trial attorney, Ford Childress, filed an affidavit supporting the motion’s assertion of ineffective assistance of counsel, and the motion accuses Albemarle Commonwealth’s Attorney Denise Lunsford of prosecutorial misconduct for allowing Steiniger to present testimony she knew to be false and for withholding the cell tower records. In the Commonwealth’s response to the motion, Lunsford denies the allegation of wrongdoing, and Higgins’ ruling supports her claim.

‘The court finds this is not the kind of evidence required to be disclosed,” Higgins said.

In a letter to the Richmond Times-Dispatch published May 10, an alternate juror in the Weiner case who sat through the trial but was dismissed before closing arguments said he would have voted to acquit Weiner even without the information that has emerged since then.

“In the absence of even a shred of any corroborative evidence, I simply can’t believe that Mr. Weiner is guilty; and if there is a crime here at all, I don’t believe it was one committed by Mr. Weiner,” Gary Oliveri wrote to the newspaper.

Weiner, who has been held at the Charlottesville Albemarle Regional Jail since his conviction, will be sentenced on July 22. The charge carries a minimum sentence of 20 years, and while Lunsford denied comment after the hearing, Benjamin, flanked by weeping members of Weiner’s family, promised to take further legal action to secure his client’s freedom.

“We will keep fighting,” he said. “Mark Weiner is absolutely innocent. What we ask for is the opportunity to prove that so he can be acquitted and returned to his family.”