Two dozen family members and friends sat in Albemarle Circuit Court July 22 for the sentencing of 53-year-old Mark Weiner, who was convicted of abduction with intent to defile in May 2013 and has been jailed since his arrest in December 2012. But instead of a sentence, Judge Cheryl Higgins ordered a sex offender evaluation after the prosecution presented testimony about three other incidents in which charges were never filed, contending they were examples of a “pattern of behavior.”
Weiner’s case has been controversial in area legal and law enforcement circles because Commonwealth’s Attorney Denise Lunsford kept the jury from hearing cell tower evidence that the defense says proved the alleged victim lied about an abduction that never took place.
According to court records, then 20-year-old Chelsea Steiniger claimed Weiner offered her a ride to her mother’s house on Pantops, rendered her unconscious with a chemical-soaked cloth, and sent taunting texts to her boyfriend using her cellphone. She alleged she awoke in an abandoned house, escaped with her cellphone and walked home without calling 911. In a motion to set aside the verdict, the defense offered evidence from experts that no such immediate-knockout chemical existed, and cell tower evidence that showed the taunting texts pinged off two towers close to her mother’s residence, not the abandoned house. At a June 3 hearing, Higgins declined to set aside the jury’s verdict.
Probation officer Jeff Lenert testified that while Weiner had no adult or juvenile criminal history, he’d had other encounters with police over his behavior with women.
On April 7, 2005, a woman called 911 in Culpeper and said a man in a dark-colored van pulled up beside the woman and stared at her, Lenert testified. Weiner was staying at the Red Carpet Inn there, Lenert said, and told police the woman waved at him.
The next incident took place December 9, 2009, when a woman reported being approached by a man in a white van at a bus stop near Martha Jefferson Hospital at 10:30 at night. “When she declined to talk to him, he followed her to her home,” said Lenert. The same thing happened the next night, he said.
Four months later, the woman said the man in the van returned, and she went into the Martha Jefferson Hospital’s emergency room and called the police. The license number she’d gotten was for Weiner’s van, said Lenert, but the woman declined to take out a protective order.
Weiner’s third brush with police took place on Cherry Avenue on June 23, 2010, when an officer approached his van at 1:30am and found him with a woman who’d previously been convicted of prostitution, said Lenert. “The officer approached from behind,” he said. “Weiner’s pants were undone and he appeared nervous.” No charges were filed.
“What I do is creepy at times, but not illegal,” Lenert testified Weiner said when asked about the incidents.
Weiner’s attorney, Richmond lawyer Steven Benjamin, objected to the inclusion of the reports as irrelevant, and complained that Lunsford refused to let him have copies of them.
“At some juncture, as things became more adversarial, the commonwealth’s attorney’s office said I was no longer entitled to look at their files,” said Benjamin.
Lunsford denied that, and said Benjamin had left her files disorganized, and that she had asked him to speak to her before looking at files again.Lenert testified that one requirement of Weiner’s probation as a sex offender would be an admission of his crime and the effect it had on his victim., Benjamin described that as a “nightmare Catch-22” because Weiner’s position is and will remain that he is innocent of the crime for which he was convicted. Maintaining his innocence would likely put him in violation of his probation and land him back in jail, Lenert agreed.
Weiner’s brother, Michael Weiner, traveled from Charlotte, North Carolina, to support his brother. “We came here to see justice,” he said after the hearing. “We wanted to see an innocent man freed.” He also wondered why the evaluation had not previously been ordered.
Legal expert David Heilberg says the evaluation is common practice in cases involving sex crimes. “What’s unusual is that it wasn’t requested at the finding of guilt,” said Heilberg.
He explained that the reports of other incidents would not have been admissible during the trial because the information is hearsay of “unknown veracity and unknown reliability,” but at sentencing, the rules change. With the new information, said Heilberg, the judge wants to know more.
“If there’s smoke, there’s fire, the commonwealth could be thinking,” said Heilberg. “But it’s not relevant for the determination of guilt or innocence.”
After the hearing, Lunsford told reporters the mental health evaluation is “designed to look at any sexual abnormalities—abnormal sexual preferences” and declined to comment on the case until after formal sentencing occurs.
“So it’s Day 599 that an innocent man remains in prison for something he didn’t do and something that didn’t happen,” said Benjamin outside the courthouse. “We are not happy about the delay in sentencing; we are not happy that Mr. Weiner remains in jail, an innocent man. We wish this additional evaluation had been requested earlier.”
A new date for sentencing will be set August 4.