Z e t e o
Reading, Looking, Listening, . . . Questioning

The Dangers of Prosecutorial Tunnel Vision

Categories: Drew Whitcup, ZiR

gavelLast week, Dahlia Lithwick posted a story on Slate.com about Mark Weiner, a man convicted of abducting a young woman in Charlottesville, VA in 2012. Lithwick offers some background:

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.

Steiniger’s version of events, of course, was different. She sent a series of texts to Mills, telling him she was in a man’s car, and that he was “trying to get in her pants.” Soon after, more texts were sent from her phone, and it appeared they were from her abductor. Later, Steiniger told police that Weiner used a chemical-soaked rag to knock her out and took her to an abandoned house, from which she escaped.

For many reasons that Lithwick explains in detail, Steiniger’s story was suspect. Nevertheless, Weiner was convicted after a trial that Commonwealth’s Attorney Denise Lunsford prosecuted with zeal, and with questionable ethics:

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.

When defense counsel learned of the cellphone evidence and attempted to use one of the detectives as a defense witness, Lunsford had him disqualified as an expert, objecting to the fact that the defense attorney hadn’t subpoenaed the right witnesses to get the phone record evidence in. When the defense lawyer asked in chambers for a continuance so that he could call the correct witnesses, the motion was denied by trial court Judge Cheryl Higgins. Jurors would never hear what the phone tower records showed. Local lawyers and trial observers were shocked.

For years after his conviction—and while Weiner sat in prison—his lawyers sought a new trial. They presented the cell tower evidence along with numerous other reasons that cast significant doubt on Weiner’s guilt. Lunsford never budged from her position, and the judge denied multiple motions to set aside the verdict. Finally, after Steiniger was charged with selling cocaine, the prosecutor changed her tune and agreed to join a motion to set aside the verdict. Mr. Weiner is finally free, but his particular path to freedom leaves something to be desired:

The motion to vacate and the statements made by the prosecutor are not an admission of error, it seems, so much as an admission that public confidence has been eroded in so many tiny increments in this case that Weiner should walk free. Lunsford referred to the drug sale as ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back,’ suggesting that she knew this camel had been overloaded for a long, long time.

The result is fair, if wildly overdue. Lithwick makes her opinion clear as to how that result was reached:

If anyone suggests that the fact that Mark Weiner was released this week means ‘the system works,’ I fear that I will have to punch him in the neck. Because at every single turn, the system that should have worked to consider proof of Weiner’s innocence failed him.

—Drew Whitcup, Zeteo Contributing Writer

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