LOCKPORT -- The effects of New York state's new criminal justice reform act have now reached Niagara County, with the postponement of the start of a cold case murder trial that is more than 25 years old.
Niagara County Court Judge Sara Sheldon said on Friday that she would move the start of Joseph Belstadt's murder trial to March 9, after finding that prosecutors had missed a deadline, required in the new law, to provide a list of trial witnesses and their criminal histories to defense attorneys.
It is the third time that the trial date has been changed. Jury selection in the case had been scheduled to start on Monday.
The delay means that hundreds of Niagara County residents, who had been ordered to report to the county courthouse in Lockport for the selection process, will now be excused from jury service. Prosecutors also complained that the new delay will "disrupt the lives of witnesses" being brought in from across the country and that the family of Mandy Steingasser, the victim in the case, will be left "still struggling with an open wound."
"Judges are struggling with the new law," said a clearly frustrated Sheldon, "particularly as it relates to cases that began before the (new) rules were in effect, but which are coming to trial now (under the new rules.)"
As part of the criminal justice reform legislation, adopted by the state legislature last year and signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, prosecutors are required to turn over to defense attorneys information on virtually all of their evidence and witnesses in criminal cases within 15 days of a defendant being arraigned.
"I do this in an abundance of caution," Sheldon said. "We don't want this case coming back (after an appeal)."
Neither Niagara County District Attorney Caroline Wojtaszek, who is leading the prosecution, nor Michelle Bergevin, who heads Belstadt's defense team, commented on the postponement. The lawyers in the case are subject to a gag order imposed by Sheldon at the start of the proceedings.
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.
Prior to Sheldon's ruling, Bergevin has argued that prosecutors had only recently "dumped" thousands of pages of documents on the defense.
"Dumping 10,000 pages in a PDF on us is not what the new law anticipated. A witness list of 600 people is not what the new law anticipated," Bergevin told Sheldon. "There is no time for the defense to be ready for trial on Monday, given what was dumped on us."
Bergevin also said that, within the last week, her team had received a 600-page email, containing the criminal histories of the prosecution's witnesses and 900 pages of grand jury minutes.
"We need more time. We're not ready for trial," she told the judge. "We want (prosecutors) to comply with the (new) law. We want the court to comply with the (new) law. This trial, if it starts (on Monday), will be illegal."
But Wojtaszek called the defense arguments disingenuous. And the DA said much of the material that was handed over in recent weeks were "duplicates" of documents already given to the defense.
Sheldon, despite the decision to delay the trial, did say she believed that prosecutors had tried to comply with the new law's requirements.
"The people have been more than open, in my humble opinion," Sheldon said. "I want to be clear on this record. The prosecution has not engaged in trial by surprise. They have not hidden the ball."