When Prosecutors Believe The Unbelievable

albemarle-county-courthouse

Albemarle County Courthouse in Charlottesville, Virginia (h/t Bill McChesney)

By Dahlia Lithwick

Three years ago, one of the strangest criminal cases in recent memory began in Charlottesville, Virginia, where I live, when a young woman sent a series of text messages telling her boyfriend that a man had abducted her, followed by a series of texts, allegedly from her captor, taunting her boyfriend with threats of sexual violence. Her story was strange, and the case was fraught with complications from the get-go, but the accused ended up in prison long after the doubts outweighed the evidence.

This story is bizarre, but it’s not all that unusual: Prosecutors can prosecute even the weakest, most clearly flawed cases relentlessly, and innocent people can end up in jail.

This week, after two and a half years in prison, Mark Weiner saw his conviction vacated. It finally ended a saga in which Weiner was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to eight years in jail on charges of abducting a woman with the intent to sexually harm her.

(Disclosure: Weiner’s son and mine attended the same preschool. I have had no contact with him or his family in several years.)

The story began on a December night in 2012. Weiner, then a 52-year-old man who managed a local Food Lion and attended night classes at a local community college, stopped and picked up 20-year-old Chelsea Steiniger, who was walking from a convenience store to her mother’s house. Steiniger’s boyfriend, Michael Mills, had just informed her that she could not sleep at his apartment, which did not permit guests after a certain hour, so she was angrily headed to stay with her mother. It was cold, it was dark, it was late. Weiner saw her and offered to drive her to her mother’s house, picking her up directly across from the local police station.

Mark Weiner’s version of events: He drove Steiniger to her mom’s house and went home.

Most of the rest of the trial narrative unfolds through the sequence of texts Steiniger sent her boyfriend as they drove to her mom’s place.

At 12:10 a.m., Steiniger texted her boyfriend that “some dud[e]” was giving her a ride. At 12:18 a.m., she texted, “he tried to get in my pants.” At 12:21 a.m., she texted, “just pulled up he wont let me out of the car.”

At 12:23 a.m., the texts allegedly start coming from Weiner instead of Steiniger, the first one reading: “[S]he doesn’t have her phone.” And at 12:27: “Shes so sexy when shes passed out.” At 12:28: “She was a fighter ill give her that much.” At 12:36: “Ill let her wake before i let you talk to her.”

When a panicking Mills texted back at 12:38 a.m., “w[h]ere are you taking her,” Weiner allegedly responded: “[S]hes in my house she said she was cold so IMMa warm her up.”

Steiniger testified that Weiner, while driving past the mother’s house, managed to knock her out at about 12:22 a.m. with a chemical-soaked cloth that worked in 15 seconds, at which point he began sending the taunting texts to Mills. Including a text using the word IMMa — not the most common expression for white, 52-year-old Food Lion managers.

Mark Weiner (Courtesy Mark Weiner Family)

Mark Weiner (Courtesy of the Mark Weiner Family)

That’s right: Over the course of four minutes, Weiner allegedly incapacitated Steiniger, took control of her phone, and texted her boyfriend, all while driving to a rural property late at night.

Steiniger claimed she awoke on the floor of an abandoned building she had never seen before, and when Weiner left her unattended, she grabbed her phone and jumped off a second-floor balcony, hid in the woods, then made her way on foot to her mother’s house two miles away. She never called 911.

But her boyfriend, Mills, had already called 911 to report the abduction. When the Emergency Communications Center called Steiniger at 1:07 a.m. and left a message, then called again at 1:08, she checked her voicemail and quickly shut off the phone. She would later testify that her battery was dead at this time, but records would show she retrieved the voicemail and then switched the phone off.

When the police were unable to reach Steiniger by phone, they went to her mother’s home. Steiniger answered the door, clothes intact and unsoiled after she supposedly jumped from a second-floor balcony and walked two miles in the cold.

On Dec. 14, 2012, Mark Weiner was arrested. He had been incarcerated in the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail ever since.

Records later showed that Steiniger’s phone accessed two cellphone towers near her mother’s house dozens of times that night, but never once pinged a tower near the abandoned house.

This was the basis of a massive trial in the spring of 2013. The most vigilant reporting on the entire Mark Weiner prosecution has been done by Lisa Provence, who has covered the case for more than two years, showing growing doubts about the strength of the case against Weiner and deepening concern about the state’s persistence in going after him, even in the face of a growing mountain of exculpatory evidence. Her accounts of Weiner’s trial and subsequent hearings are worth reading in full. The fact that there was a trial at all is remarkable.

If anyone suggests this means “the system works,” I fear that I will have to punch him in the neck.
The Albemarle County prosecutor, who is elected to the post, is currently Commonwealth’s Attorney Denise Lunsford. As part of her prosecution strategy, Weiner’s trial lawyer later said, Lunsford “sought the advice of two respected detectives in the city and the county” to pinpoint where the alleged victim’s text messages had originated. Each cop concluded independently that the texts had been sent from near where Steiniger’s mother lived. Lunsford interviewed the first officer for the first time at the courthouse, just before he was scheduled to testify. He told the prosecutor he’d guess the calls came from Steiniger’s mother’s house, not the abandoned property.

Some prosecutors would call that sort of thing exculpatory information that must legally be turned over to the defense. Lunsford thanked the officer for stopping by and said she would no longer be needing his testimony after all. (This officer would later call the defense attorney and tell him what had transpired.) The second law enforcement officer offered up the same conclusion. He didn’t get to testify, either.

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