LOCKPORT — The Mandy Steingasser murder trial, which came to a crashing halt in the wake of the novel coronavirus outbreak, has been tentatively rescheduled for Sept. 14.
After opening statements, and just one day of testimony, in what was widely expected to be a six- to eight-week long trial, Niagara County Court Judge Sara Sheldon granted a motion by the attorneys for accused killer Joseph Belstadt to declare a mistrial.
Belstadt's attorneys had argued that it would be impossible to conduct and complete the trial amid the cascading effects of the escalating coronavirus pandemic. After the trial stopped on March 16, the Office of Court Administration, which oversees the state's superior courts, declared a shutdown of the court system, except for emergency proceedings, on March 17.
The new tentative trial date was reached during a phone conference on Wednesday between Sheldon, Niagara County prosecutors and Belstadt's defense team. Prosecutors had not opposed the defense's mistrial motion.
Sheldon had told the jury of nine women and three men who were hearing the case, "We're gonna stop." She told the jurors, "You are extraordinary people."
The judge said she had 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 coronavirus 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.
She praised the jurors for their "unbelievably" dedicated service as they left the courtroom.
The jury had heard opening statements in the case and testimony from four witnesses.
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 after the trial was stopped.