LOCKPORT — A Niagara County Court judge has reversed course, and ruled that lawyers for the man accused of killing Mandy Steingasser will be able to argue to a jury that another man may have committed the crime.
Judge Sara Sheldon had previously barred Joseph Belstadt's defense team from raising the issue of what is known as third-party culpability. Niagara County prosecutors had asked Sheldon to block Belstadt’s defense from suggesting to a jury that someone other than their client might be Steingasser’s killer.
Defense lawyers first made that explosive charge during a more than two hour-long hearing on Jan. 24.
But in a Feb. 6 ruling, Sheldon granted the prosecutors' motion after they had argued that Belstadt’s lawyers had no “credible evidence” to back up their claim.
The Gazette is withholding the name of the person at the center of the defense claims because he has not been named as a suspect by police or charged in the case.
Defense attorney Michelle Bergevin previously told Sheldon that she should be able to argue to a jury that a boyfriend of Steingasser’s could have been her killer because his DNA was found in the teen’s underwear. Bergevin said that the former boyfriend, who now lives out-of-state, gave “inconsistent statements” to police investigators in 2018 about whether he and Steingasser had been intimate and about when he moved from North Tonawanda to a home in another state.
Bergevin accused prosecutors of trying to hide the DNA information.
"We’ve got semen in a dead girl’s underwear," Bergevin exclaimed.
Prosecutors immediately challenged Bergevin’s statement, telling the court, “The DNA was not semen.”
In her opinion, Sheldon wrote that legal precedents require that “evidence of third party culpability may not rest on mere suspicion or surmise.” And while the defense, Sheldon noted, has offered the former boyfriend’s DNA in her underwear as evidence, it has not otherwise connected him “to the crime or crime scene.”
Both prosecutors and police say their investigation of the Steingasser murder showed that the former boyfriend was “five states away” at the time of the North Tonawanda teen’s disappearance.
In arguing the issue on Monday, Bergevin presented Sheldon with a sworn statement from Belstadt's sister, Tammy, claiming she had seen Steingasser's boyfriend on the night she disappeared, "skateboarding" on the steps of a church near where she was last seen.
"We have (the boyfriend) giving different accounts of his whereabouts," Bergevin said. "(Steingasser's) remains are the crime scene and his DNA is at the crime scene."
Prosecutors immediately called Belstadt's sister's statement "wholly inconsistent." Investigators questioned the woman's credibility.
In her initial ruling, the judge wrote that while the DNA evidence “has some probative value”, that value would overshadow “the undue prejudice and confusion that it would cause if presented to a jury, which would be left to speculate that someone other than (Belstadt) committed the crime.”
But Sheldon said the witness statement changed her view on the issue.
"The court must balance the new proffer," Sheldon said. "I must err on the side of the defense. I will allow (an argument of third-party culpability), but with some limits."
The judge also ruled, over defense objections, that two prosecutors will be able to present opening statements to the jury.
"I'm going to allow it," Sheldon said, "but I'm going to carefully monitor the opening statements and there better not be arguments or summations or I will shut them down."
Finally, Sheldon granted a request by lawyers on both sides of the case for a list of the names of the several hundred Niagara County residents expected to be called for jury selection in the case. The attorneys suggested that they would look to review social media accounts of the potential jurors for any evidence of bias.
Belstadt has been the prime suspect for police since Steingasser, who was 17 at the time, disappeared in the early morning hours of Sept. 19, 1993. She was last seen alive at around 1:30 a.m. at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Oliver Street in North Tonawanda.
Information developed by investigators looking into her disappearance pointed to Belstadt as the last person she had been with before vanishing. Witnesses told police they saw Steingasser getting into Belstadt’s car.
Five weeks after her disappearance, Steingasser’s body was discovered and recovered from Bond Lake in Lewiston.
Although investigators recovered evidence from the scene, including DNA, much of it was degraded. Police and prosecutors concluded then that they lacked enough evidence to present the case to a grand jury or to arrest Belstadt at that time.
In late 2017, prosecutors reopened their investigation and took another look at the evidence. That reopening included a retesting of the DNA evidence using more sophisticated technologies that weren’t available in 1993.
Prosecutors say that the retesting of two hairs found in Belstadt’s car provided them with the forensic link they needed to finally charge Belstadt with Steingasser’s murder.
A Niagara County grand jury has indicted Belstadt on a charge of second-degree murder. He has pleaded not guilty to the charge and is free on $250,000 bail.