LOCKPORT — The Mandy Steingasser murder trial came to a crashing halt late Monday morning, after Niagara County Court Judge Sara Sheldon granted a motion by Joseph Belstadt's defense team to declare a mistrial.
Belstadt's defense attorneys argued that it would be impossible to conduct the trial, which began on Thursday and was expected to last at least six weeks, amid the cascading effects of the escalating coronavirus pandemic.
Prosecutors did not oppose the mistrial motion.
After an hour of in-chambers meetings with the lawyers in the case, Sheldon called the jury of nine women and three men who were hearing the case into the courtroom and said, "We're gonna stop."
Looking at the jury, Sheldon said, "You are extraordinary people. I fully expected a phone call today saying, 'I'm feeling sick and I need to stay home' or 'I have child care issues,' but here you're here."
The judge said she accepted the concerns of Belstatd's lawyers that at some time during the lengthy trial a member of the jury, a witness, one of the lawyers in the case or even she could contract the potentially deadly virus.
"I had to make a decision," Sheldon said, "one of the most difficult decisions I've had to make. We're gonna stop. I think we need to try this case another time. And, unfortunately, it will have to be with another jury."
The declaration of the mistrial came less than 48 hours after Sheldon had vowed to do everything she could to keep the trial going, including quarantining the courtroom.
"This is not a good day," Sheldon said. "Not good news."
But she praised the jurors for their "unbelievably" dedicated service as they left the courtroom.
No new trial date was set. The lawyers will meet with Sheldon on April 29 to plan what happens next.
Saying she was, "Absolutely disappointed," Niagara County District Attorney Caroline Wojtaszek said the mistrial was a result of "circumstances beyond anyone's control."
Lead defense attorney Michelle Bergevin declined to comment on the mistrial.
The jury had heard opening statements in the case on Thursday and testimony from four witnesses on Friday.
Belstatdt faces a charge of second-degree murder in the death of Steingasser. He is free on $250,000 bail and could be seen smiling and patting friends and family members on the back as they left the courtroom Monday.