Judge bars 'other killer' argument in Steingasser case

LOCKPORT — A Niagara County Court judge has barred attorneys for the accused killer of Mandy Steingasser from arguing to a jury that another man may have killed her.

The ruling, on what is known as third party culpability, was issued by Judge Sara Sheldon on Thursday afternoon.

Niagara County prosecutors had asked Sheldon to bar Belstadt's defense from suggesting to a jury that someone other than their client might be Steingasser's killer. The defense lawyers first made that explosive charge during a more than two hour-long hearing on Jan. 24.

Prosecutors told Sheldon that Belstadt's lawyers had no "credible evidence" to back up their claim. They also objected to arguments over the claim in open court, where reporters were present.

The Niagara Gazette has withheld the name of the person at the center of the defense claims because he has not been charged in the case.

Defense attorney Michelle Bergevin told the judge 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.

"The jury should be able to have this evidence. This is what exonerates defendants. This what the Innocence Project (a program that uses DNA evidence to show some defendants are wrongly convicted) does," Bergevin continued. "(Prosecutors) are trying to hide this information. We've got semen in a dead girl's underwear."

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.

Sheldon wrote that while the DNA evidence "has some probative value", it would overshadow "the undue prejudice and confusion that it would cause if resented to a jury, which would left to speculate that someone other than the (Belstadt) committed the crime."

Belstadt's trial is scheduled to begin on March 9.

He 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.

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