A Virginia judge on Tuesday vacated the conviction of a Montgomery County native who has long maintained he was innocent of abducting a woman in Charlottesville and taking her to an abandoned home in 2012.
Mark Weiner, 54, walked away from jail a free man after the Albemarle County prosecutor took the unusual step of siding with the defense in calling for the 2013 verdict to be thrown out. Weiner was serving an eight-year sentence.
A jury had convicted Weiner based on dramatic testimony from a woman who claimed she narrowly escaped her attacker by leaping from a balcony of the abandoned home. She narrated the alleged abduction in a series of increasingly frantic text messages to her boyfriend.
Attorneys Steve Benjamin and Betty Layne Desportes had argued in a series of motions that cellphone data and other evidence showed the story was a fabrication, but they were opposed by Albemarle County Commonwealth’s Attorney Denise Lunsford, who said the conviction should stand.
But that changed on July 8, after Lunsford said she learned the accuser, Chelsea Steiniger, had allegedly sold cocaine to an undercover police officer in another jurisdiction in February. She has not been charged in that case and could not be reached for comment. Lunsford said the fresh information would not have changed the outcome of the case but could have been used by the defense to cast doubt on Steiniger’s credibility.
“These cases are often highly dependent on a single witness, and this was one such case,” Lunsford said in a statement. “In light of this additional information, when considered collectively with other information, I can no longer continue to defend the conviction.”
Lunsford said she will not seek to try Weiner again.
The incident began on the night of Dec. 13, 2012, as Steiniger, then 20, was walking from her boyfriend’s home to her mother’s house in Charlottesville. Steiniger testified that a white van passed by her and that a man offered to give her a ride.
Weiner acknowledged giving Steiniger a ride, but he said he dropped her off at her mother’s house. Steiniger offered a different account.
She testified that Weiner asked her uncomfortable personal questions and touched her thigh. She testified that she texted her boyfriend, “he wont let me out of the car.”
She told the jury that Weiner clapped a chemical-soaked bandanna over her face and she passed out almost immediately. Steiniger said she awoke in an abandoned home to the sound of Weiner tapping out taunting text messages to her boyfriend.
Steiniger testified that she feigned unconsciousness and then made her escape, when Weiner went back to his car to retrieve something.
After the trial, Benjamin and Desportes began uncovering evidence they said cast doubt on the verdict and worked to overturn it.
Benjamin said an analysis of cellular data showed that during the course of the alleged abduction, Steiniger’s cellphone was pinging off a cell tower near her mother’s home and never accessed one that was close to the abandoned home. Benjamin also consulted an expert who said that no known chemical placed on a bandanna would knock someone out immediately.
The defense also found three witnesses who testified at a hearing that Steiniger had previously hung out at the abandoned house, directly contradicting her testimony at trial.
Benjamin said he believed Steiniger had made up the abduction and texted her boyfriend because they had fought. She wanted to get back at him.
Weiner, who lives in the Charlottesville area, said in a statement to The Washington Post last year that he was a grocery store manager had been married for 20 years prior to his arrest. He is also a father.
“Mark is innocent,” Benjamin said. “There never was an abduction.”