Despite Strong Arguments From DA, Steingasser Murder Trial Delayed Again

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Niagara County District Attorney Caroline Wojtaszek has taken the lead on this cold case in an effort to give the family of Mandy Steingasser their day in court.

 

Niagara County District Attorney Caroline Wojtaszek Eager to Give Steingasser Family Day in Court

 

By: Tony Farina

It was more than 26 years ago that police found the decomposed body of 17-year-old North Tonawanda High School student Mandy Steingasser in Bond Lake Park in Lewiston, but it will be another several weeks before her alleged killer stands trial for a crime that shook the community and delivered years of endless heartbreak to the parents of the girl, their only child.  Her father has since passed on.

The latest postponement is the fourth time a trial date has come and gone since accused killer Joseph Belstadt was formally charged in an indictment in late April of 2018 after new DNA evidence linked him to the girl’s death. 

Belstadt was the last person seen with the victim the night she disappeared on September 19, 1993, never to be seen alive again.  Police had long regarded him as the prime suspect in the girl’s death, but it was only after Caroline Wojataszek became district attorney that an indictment was finally returned.

The latest delay in the trial that is now scheduled for March 9 occurred last week when Niagara County Judge Sara Sheldon ruled, in her own words, “in an abundance of caution,” in favor of a request by Joseph Belstadt’s attorney, Michele Bergevin, that the defense had not received all of the information it needed in time to present their defense under the state’s new discovery laws.

Niagara County DA Caroline Wojtaszek strongly disagreed in court, saying “we gave them everything,” and the record suggests that’s exactly what prosecutors did, beginning with open file discovery within months of the indictment that included statutory discovery within 45 days, something not normally done in murder cases but that was done in this case because of the voluminous files involved.

 

Mandy Steingasser, who was murdered when she was 17-years-old.

 

As she said in court in opposing the delay, “we wanted to be open with the file so they could defend their client.  We gave them everything.”

The prosecution gave the defense a witness list of 900 names more than a year ago and narrowed it down to 75 earlier this month, including a list of tangible evidence, and as required a rap sheet on any of the witnesses who had a record.

Wojtaszek said the list was provided in compliance with the new discovery laws that went into effect January 1 but the defense argued they needed the list 15 days prior to trial under the law and the rap sheets were insufficient, even though Wojtaszek has since learned that what was provided in the rap sheets met the requirements of the law.

Defense attorney Bergevin made a motion on Christmas Eve, just two weeks prior to the January 7 trial date, saying the defense was entitled to a witness list because of the new law.  The prosecution responded with the 75 names shortly after January 1 in compliance with the new law, noting of course it had already provided the defense with the 900 names more than a year ago.

“We gave it [the list] to them as soon as possible,” said DA Wojtaszek, mindful of the hardship a delay would have on all the witnesses and family members who were ready to go to trial, as anticipated, on January 7, and would now have to be shuffled back weeks to comply with the decision to delay the trial. 

Belstadt’s cold case trial was first scheduled for September of 2018 but was delayed because of extensive pretrial hearings.  Two other trial dates, in February and July of last year, came and went with none of the delays the result of prosecution requests.

It would seem the district attorney and her staff had the case ready to go January 7, the witnesses lined up to testify, and the family of the victim ready for their day in court after all these years.

As the judge stated in her own words in the latest postponement, she ruled “in an abundance of caution,” a clear signal that she was concerned that the defense may have raised an issue for appeal if their client was convicted.

It was a difficult day for the district attorney who, in her mind and in her own words, had been open with the defense from the beginning, providing open file discovery and doing everything possible to comply with the state’s new discovery laws right up to the start of the trial.

Now it is on hold again and the Steingasser family has several more weeks to wait for their day in court, hoping and praying that this will be the last delay for them and for Mandy Steingasser, now gone almost 27 years.

 

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