Innocent man jailed? Perjury, misconduct, and error alleged in abduction guilty verdict

Charlottesville wants to put a new sign up at the Albemarle County Circuit Court in Court Square. File photo Charlottesville wants to put a new sign up at the Albemarle County Circuit Court in Court Square. File photo

After former Food Lion manager Mark Weiner was convicted of abduction with intent to defile last May, his attorney alleged in court that the prosecutor kept out cell phone records that would have cleared his client. Weiner’s new attorney has gone further, contending in a new motion filed April 14 that the alleged victim fabricated the abduction to provoke her boyfriend, and pointing a finger at both prosecutorial misconduct and defense attorney errors that did, a motion alleges, result in a jury recommending Weiner serve 20 years.

“Mark Weiner was convicted of a crime that never occurred,” said the motion to set aside the jury verdict, which was filed by Richmond attorney Steve Benjamin in Albemarle County Circuit Court.

In addition to accusing Chelsea Steiniger of lying about being drugged, abducted, and taken to an abandoned house on Richmond Road, the motion takes aim at Albemarle County Commonwealth’s Attorney Denise Lunsford, alleging prosecutorial misconduct for allowing Steiniger to testify when Lunsford had phone records that contradicted her story, and for refusing to allow the jury to hear this exculpatory evidence.

“The Commonwealth’s intentional efforts to keep the cell phone information from the jury were improper and prejudiced Mark Weiner’s rights to cross-examination, depriving him of a fair trial,” said the court document, which refers to Brady v. Maryland, a case in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the prosecution’s suppression of evidence favorable to the accused violates due process.

“The police–and prosecutor–knew that the cell phone records showed that Chelsea called her boyfriend multiple times and received the 911 dispatcher’s message when she claimed that her phone was ‘dead,’” said the filing. “They also knew that the cell tower location information showed that Chelsea was never in the area of 2184 Richmond Road.”

At posting time, the prosecution had not yet filed a response to the motion, and Lunsford did not return C-VILLE’s call. However, in an interview with the Richmond Times-Dispatch, she disagreed that Steiniger lied and disputed the allegations of prosecutorial misconduct. “And I don’t agree with the interpretation of the phone records that has been presented by the defense,” she told the Times-Dispatch. “I believe (the defense) either misunderstands or misrepresents those phone records.”

The case began December 12, 2012, when Weiner, 54, offered then 20-year-old Chelsea Steiniger a ride home around 11:30pm from the Lucky Seven convenience store on Market Street on a bitter winter night after her boyfriend refused to let her stay at his Grady Avenue apartment, according to the motion.

In Weiner’s trial last May, Steiniger testified that Weiner put a cloth over her face that immediately knocked her out. She said she later awoke in an abandoned house in Shadwell, escaped with her phone by jumping out of a second-story window, hid in the woods from her abductor, and walked home.

“Pure fiction,” said Benjamin in the motion, which alleges Weiner dropped Steiniger off safely at her mother’s Carriage Hill apartment on Pantops and that she even gave him her phone number. She was already at home when she began texting her boyfriend that she’d been abducted and refused to answer his calls, said the court filing.

According to the motion, Steiniger sent taunting texts to her beau pretending to be the alleged abductor. “Shes so sexy when shes passed out,” reads one of the texts entered as an exhibit supporting the motion. After her alleged escape, she claimed her cell phone battery died. But the motion asserts she deliberately turned off her phone when she realized her boyfriend had called 911 and after she received and listened to a voicemail from the Emergency Communications Center.

“Chelsea continued her fraudulent scheme, ultimately perpetuating it on this Court,” said the motion. “To do this, Chelsea had to explain how the abductor texted from a phone she still had; how she was abducted without a struggle, injuries, or restraints; and why she never called 911.”

Police obtained Steiniger’s cell phone records from AT&T, which showed that her phone was working during a period in which she said the battery had died, and indicated she spoke to her boyfriend three times and listened to a message from the ECC an hour earlier than she testified she’d received it, said the court filing.

Records show that Steiniger’s phone accessed two AT&T cell towers near her mother’s apartment dozens of times that night and never accessed the AT&T cell tower closest to the abandoned house, said the motion, which noted Weiner’s defense attorney, Ford Childress, never saw the records until after the jury began deliberations.

“The cell phone records prove that Chelsea Steiniger committed perjury by testifying that on December 13, 2012, (1) she was at 2184 Richmond Road; and (2) her phone “died” minutes after she had entered the woods around 12:51 a.m.,” said the motion to set aside the jury’s verdict.

 The motion also challenges Steiniger’s story that Weiner put a cloth over her face that rendered her unconscious within 10 to 15 seconds with an affidavit from anesthesiologist John R. Janes Jr., who stated, “I know of no volatile anesthetic which will render an adult female completely unconscious in 10-15 seconds.”

Weiner also claimed that Steiniger gave him her phone number, which he wrote on a matchbook. When police searched his van, they found multiple matchbooks but did not collect any. After the vehicle was released, Weiner’s attorney found the matchbook with the number, but did not enter it into evidence, resulting in “ineffective assistance of counsel,” according to court documents. “That circumstance not only supports Mark Weiner’s testimony and his innocence, it is independent evidence that Chelsea was neither rendered unconscious nor abducted,” said the motion.

Weiner also cites Steiniger’s recorded phone conversations with her husband, Howard Steiniger, who was incarcerated at Dillwyn Correctional Institution, in which her story about what happened that night changed. According to the motion, “She explained that the entire event had been an ‘elaborate scam to piss off a man that had gone horribly wrong.’ The man was a guy named ‘Mike’ and the scam was to falsely claim that a man had tried to kidnap her. She claimed she was just trying to ‘piss this Mike guy off.’” The court filing names Michael Mills as Steiniger’s boyfriend, and, says Childress, who did not return a phone call requesting comment for this story, erred in not calling him as a witness.

 Further, Weiner’s filing alleges Steiniger told Mills she’d lied about the abduction because Mills texted, “why did u lie to me…” Mills declined to comment.

 “[Steiniger’s] story was pure fiction and an affront to common sense,” blasted the motion. Reached by phone, Steiniger said, “I have no comment.”

 Weiner’s attorney Steve Benjamin, recently the president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, also declined to comment on the motion.

 “He’s a powerhouse,” said John Whitehead, president of the civil liberties-defending Rutherford Institute. “If I got in trouble, he’s the guy I’d want representing me.”

 Such a filing claiming perjury by the victim, prosecutorial misconduct, and defense attorney error, is “very rare,” said Whitehead. “He raises some significant questions about justice in this motion.”

 Whitehead described Benjamin as “very meticulous,” and said, “The thing about Benjamin, if he takes a case, you have to take it seriously because he’s so well-respected. He’s a Clarence Darrow type.”

 Weiner has been held at the Albemarle Charlottesville Regional Jail since December 14, 2012. On April 30, the day he is scheduled to be formally sentenced, Benjamin will argue that Weiner’s guilty verdict be set aside, and an acquittal be entered.

Read the full motion here.

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