New evidence ‘not relevant’: Mark Weiner sentenced to eight years

Defense attorney Steve Benjamin called the judge's refusal to grant Mark Weiner a new trial "a tragedy." Weiner's brother, Mike,  is on right. Photo: Samantha Baars Defense attorney Steve Benjamin called the judge’s refusal to grant Mark Weiner a new trial “a tragedy.” Weiner’s brother, Mike, is on right. Photo: Samantha Baars

A judge rejected new evidence that the alleged victim of a 2012 abduction lied and sentenced Mark Weiner to 20 years in prison, with 12 years suspended, in Albemarle Circuit Court June 9.

Judge Cheryl Higgins denied Weiner’s motion for a new trial, and said the accounts of three witnesses, who testified last month they had partied with Chelsea Steiniger in the abandoned house on Richmond Road that Steiniger claimed she’d never been to before Weiner brought her there, did not rise to the level of evidence that a jury should have found a different verdict when it convicted him of abduction with intent to defile in May 2013.

Former Food Lion manager Weiner gave then 20-year-old Steiniger a ride home on December 12, 2012. He said he drove her from the Lucky 7 on Market Street to her mother’s apartment on Pantops. Steiniger claimed he put a cloth over her face that rendered her unconscious and took her to the abandoned house, according to court records. She said she awoke and heard him sending texts on her phone to her boyfriend, who earlier had refused to let her spend the night. She told police she escaped with her cell phone when Weiner left the room. She never called 911, but her panicked boyfriend did. Weiner has been jailed since December 2013, and his defense has called Steiniger’s story “an elaborate scam.”

In court, the defense entered an affidavit from Steiniger’s boyfriend, Mike Mills, in which he said she’d admitted to him on five occasions she’d fabricated the events of that night. Defense attorney Steve Benjamin also produced three police reports from this year that he said were evidence Steiniger continued to make false accusations. In a January 1, 2015, report, a Charlottesville police officer wrote that Steiniger admitted she was not being truthful when she said Mills struck her in the face, said Benjamin. In an April 23, 2015, report, after another volatile incident between the couple, the same officer drove Mills to the magistrate to seek an emergency protective order, said Benjamin.

He called the reports “material evidence of Chelsea’s own admissions to officers of making false criminal accusations.”

Commonwealth’s Attorney Denise Lunsford characterized the police reports as continuing domestic abuse, and said, “Domestic abuse is not relevant here in respect to the reliability of the victim.” She pointed to other assaults by Mills, including a June 10, 2014, incident in which he assaulted Steiniger’s mother, and said it wasn’t surprising Steiniger changed her story to police “given what we know about victims” of domestic abuse. She also called it “incredibly damning” that Mills signed an affidavit after Steiniger went to police to report abuse.

Lunsford also blasted the defense for filing motions that have delayed sentencing for two years, including one that asserted victim perjury, prosecutorial misconduct for not allowing exculpatory cell tower records and ineffective counsel from Weiner’s previous attorney, and said it was a pattern that the defense continued to file new motions two years after Weiner was convicted. “The defense has been very effective in using the media to create a monster in the form of the commonwealth trying to railroad the defendant,” she said.

Higgins took a 20-minute recess to review the police reports, and said it wasn’t clear to her that Steiniger was “inherently incredible” in her statements to police. “There are no reports that indicate Ms. Steiniger otherwise made false accusations,” said Higgins, denying Weiner’s motion for a new trial.

During the sentencing phase of the hearing, Lunsford reminded the court of previous incidents in which Weiner had made unwelcome advances to two women and called it a “pattern of behavior.” No charges were filed in either case. Lunsford also noted testimony from probation officer Jeff Lenert, who said Weiner had called his behavior “maybe creepy but not illegal.”

“It’s alarming how much weight is placed on noncriminal behavior that worries the commonwealth,” said Benjamin, who added that no police reports about the earlier incidents were entered as evidence in court.

When Higgins asked Weiner if he had anything to say before sentencing, the defendant said, “I’m innocent. Please don’t sentence me for something I didn’t do.”

After the hearing, Lunsford said she was pleased with the eight-year sentence and felt relieved for the victim. When a reporter asked Lunsford about criticism she’d received for not pursuing justice in this case, the prosecutor said, “Sometimes it comes down to, do you believe the victim? I believe her.” The police and the jury also believed the victim, she added.

“I don’t believe there’s anyone standing here today who believes a crime occurred,” said Benjamin outside the courthouse.

“This is the criminal justice system at its worst and you’ve witnessed it for the past two-and-a-half years,” he said. “You can be innocent and go to prison and even when proof of your innocence emerges and struggles to be heard, that truth and innocence can be turned away at the door of a courthouse.”

He said he was worried about his client, who has had surgery to remove a tumor from his bladder. “Mark’s health is so perilous that I have real concerns about whether he can survive another year.” In court, Judge Higgins said she would have to think about bond while Weiner appeals his case.

Benjamin vowed to keep fighting until his client is free. “We won’t stop until the truth has prevailed,” he said.

Mike Pesca, who met Weiner in Albemarle Charlottesville Regional Jail and testified last month that he knew Steiniger and had seen her in the abandoned house multiple times before the alleged abduction, was in court. Afterward, he said of the outcome, “It’s messed up for real.”

 

View Benjamin’s final remarks here: