On Bastille Day in Charlottesville, the family of Mark Weiner didn’t storm the regional jail, but waited with excitement and disbelief outside its walls for him to emerge as a free man after two-and-a-half years.
It was a stunning turn of events in a case that many have believed was a wrongful conviction since 2013, when his attorney at the time publicly protested the withholding of exculpatory evidence that he said could have averted the jury’s guilty conviction. As recently as a month ago, Judge Cheryl Higgins found evidence from three witnesses that challenged alleged victim Chelsea Steiniger’s credibility “irrelevant,” and sentenced Weiner to eight years in prison.
Weiner’s nightmare began December 12, 2012, when he offered a ride to the then 20-year-old girl whose boyfriend had refused to let her spend the night. Weiner said he dropped her off at her mother’s place on Pantops. In courtroom testimony, Steiniger claimed Weiner knocked her out with a mysterious chemical-soaked cloth and took her to an abandoned house on Richmond Road to which she’d never been. She told police, who were summoned by her frantic boyfriend, not by her, that she’d leapt off a second-floor balcony and escaped.
At a May hearing, three unwilling witnesses testified they’d partied with Steiniger there multiple times before the alleged abduction. Both her ex-husband and her boyfriend submitted affidavits alleging she’d told them she made up the whole story. But that wasn’t what changed the commonwealth’s mind.
In the July 14 hearing, Lunsford told the court she learned on July 8 that Steiniger had sold $100 worth of cocaine February 27 to an undercover informant in another jurisdiction and that members of Albemarle law enforcement had knowledge of the sale. Even though she didn’t know, Lunsford said as commonwealth’s attorney, she’s charged with knowing what information law enforcement in her jurisdiction has, and the drug sale could have been material evidence for the defense at the May 6 hearing.
While maintaining she still found Steiniger’s version of events the night she encountered Weiner to be credible, Lunsford told the judge that a collection of events “leads to a situation in which confidence in the outcome of the trial by the public is undermined.” She asked the judge to set aside the verdict and when Higgins asked if she wanted a new trial, replied Lunsford, “We have a possibly tainted conviction. The commonwealth is not prepared to go forward.”
Weiner, sitting at the defense table in a striped jail uniform, began weeping, and a sob escaped his wife. Higgins told him he was free, and deputies surrounded him to remove his handcuffs and shackles before taking him back to jail to be processed out.
Outside the courthouse, Lunsford said she believed Steiniger, but said the drug-selling affected her credibility, and she stressed that the public’s confidence in a fair, impartial and objective system must come first.
“Innocence always fights to be heard,” said a jubilant Steve Benjamin, Weiner’s defense attorney who on several previous occasions had introduced new evidence he said proved Steiniger lied. Those earlier efforts had not convinced the judge to set the verdict aside.
“We are ecstatically happy,” he said following the hearing. “We knew Mark was innocent and we knew this crime never occurred.”
“This is a day you want to live for,” said Mike Weiner, who’s driven up from Charlotte numerous times in the two years and seven months his brother was incarcerated to lend his support.
Steiniger did not know that Weiner had been released, according to her boyfriend, Michael Mills, reached on his cellphone several hours after the decision. “Hey Chelsea, Mark Weiner is free,” he told her, then returned to the phone. “She’ll call you back if she wants to talk to you.”
At the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail, defense attorney Scott Goodman said it was clear Lunsford lost faith in her evidence and if she’d known it a month ago at the sentencing, she could have taken a different position. “If it feels justice is no longer being served, the prosecutor’s duty is to do this and join with the defense” to set aside the verdict, he said.
Lunsford, who has been commonwealth’s attorney for eight years, is seeking reelection in November. Goodman said he didn’t think that was a factor in her decision on this case. “Her record entitles her to benefit of the doubt,” he said. “She’s not letting the fact that this could cause her embarrassment keep her from doing the right thing. And it is embarrassing when you have to concede someone you’ve stood behind and presented to the court as truthful isn’t.”
Her challenger, Republican Robert Tracci, said in a statement that Lunsford’s conduct during key stages of the Weiner prosecution “has raised substantial questions about the fairness and integrity of criminal proceedings against him.” Her decision to join the defense motion to vacate Weiner’s conviction after more than two years of incarceration “does not resolve these questions,” he said. “Rather, it reinforces them.”
Fewer than two hours after Higgins set aside Weiner’s guilty verdict for abduction with intent to defile, he walked out of jail in jeans and a t-shirt, carrying two clear plastic bags filled with manila envelopes and medication.
“I’ve waited so long for this,” he murmured, as he hugged his sister. “I’m so happy,” he said to an in-law. And he got into a waiting minivan, and headed home.
Updated July 15 with Robert Tracci’s statement, and Chelsea Steiniger’s age at the time she encountered Weiner has been corrected.