The following story shows a tremendous, and unfortunately not too uncommon, injustice in our legal systems today. It is an injustice that results from a failure to implement a basic principle of biblical law. Furthermore, it is an injustice that is allowed to prevail with the government in general, including police departments in general, police officers individually, courts, judges, and prosecutors. Today we will focus mainly on prosecution (accusers). It is a widespread injustice we must remedy.
The Introduction posted yesterday is, as I said, only a beginning of groundwork needed to understanding how awry law and government, including police and courts, have grown in the country. Perhaps it can even be seen as a springboard into the needed discussion. If so, it is one which includes necessary historical and religious background in order to chart the back to liberty.
It is easy to condemn how badly courts—especially those tyrannical ecclesiastical courts—used to be. We can read with head-shaking the endless marginalia for which courts accused, imprisoned, flogged, and fined individuals incessantly. But the shaking-of-the-head does not usually ascend to outrage when looking back centuries. It’s so out of touch for us today.
Except it really is not. The truth is, we have largely been overwhelmed by the same matters today: by the same types of legal systems and in many cases to the same degrees. The only exception is that today they are purely secular rather than both secular and ecclesiastical. Many people, especially conservative Christians, do not see it for many reasons which we will discuss at a later time. For now, I would like to introduce you to one recent legal story that ought to wake us all up.
The Case of Mark Weiner
You need to read this report on the freeing of Mark Weiner in its entirety. The authoress gives you the nutshell:
This story is bizarre, but it’s not all that unusual: Prosecutors can prosecute even the weakest, most clearly flawed cases relentlessly, and innocent people can end up in jail.
But this doesn’t get to the half of it. Because prosecutors (and apparently the court, too) were bent on prosecution (rather than justice) as their goal, this particular innocent man sat in jail for two and a half years.
And that’s not the half of it. Two and a half unnecessary and totally unjust years in jail entails, as you can imagine, the loss of nearly everything. The piece concludes:
Mark Weiner has lost more than two years with his young son and with his wife, he’s lost his job, he’s lost his family home, and he’s lost every penny he ever had in savings or retirement accounts.
But again, even this is not all of it. The piece draws the following conclusion:
If anyone suggests that the fact that Mark Weiner was released this week means “the system works,” I fear that I will have to punch him in the neck. Because at every single turn, the system that should have worked to consider proof of Weiner’s innocence failed him.
Just from these few indications we could draw several conclusions. But you have to hear what lies behind this conclusion of how “the system should have worked.” To do that, I’ll have to rehearse the basics of the case. At the risk of making this article too lengthy, here’s the article’s summary:
The story began on a December night in 2012. Weiner, then a 52-year-old man who managed a local Food Lion and attended night classes at a local community college, stopped and picked up 20-year-old Chelsea Steiniger, who was walking from a convenience store to her mother’s house. Steiniger’s boyfriend, Michael Mills, had just informed her that she could not sleep at his apartment, which did not permit guests after a certain hour, so she was angrily headed to stay with her mother. It was cold, it was dark, it was late. Weiner saw her and offered to drive her to her mother’s house, picking her up directly across from the local police station.
Mark Weiner’s version of events: He drove Steiniger to her mom’s house and went home.
Most of the rest of the trial narrative unfolds through the sequence of texts Steiniger sent her boyfriend as they drove to her mom’s place.
At 12:10 a.m., Steiniger texted her boyfriend that “some dud[e]” was giving her a ride. At 12:18 a.m., she texted, “he tried to get in my pants.” At 12:21 a.m., she texted, “just pulled up he wont let me out of the car.”
At 12:23 a.m., the texts allegedly start coming from Weiner instead of Steiniger, the first one reading: “[S]he doesn’t have her phone.” And at 12:27: “Shes so sexy when shes passed out.” At 12:28: “She was a fighter ill give her that much.” At 12:36: “Ill let her wake before i let you talk to her.”
When a panicking Mills texted back at 12:38 a.m., “w[h]ere are you taking her,” Weiner allegedly responded: “[S]hes in my house she said she was cold so IMMa warm her up.”
Steiniger testified that Weiner, while driving past the mother’s house, managed to knock her out at about 12:22 a.m. with a chemical-soaked cloth that worked in 15 seconds, at which point he began sending the taunting texts to Mills. Including a text using the word IMMa—not the most common expression for white, 52-year-old Food Lion managers.
That’s right: Over the course of four minutes, Weiner allegedly incapacitated Steiniger, took control of her phone, and texted her boyfriend, all while driving to a rural property late at night.
Steiniger claimed she awoke on the floor of an abandoned building she had never seen before, and when Weiner left her unattended, she grabbed her phone and jumped off a second-floor balcony, hid in the woods, then made her way on foot to her mother’s house two miles away. She never called 911.
But her boyfriend, Mills, had already called 911 to report the abduction. When the Emergency Communications Center called Steiniger at 1:07 a.m. and left a message, then called again at 1:08, she checked her voicemail and quickly shut off the phone. She would later testify that her battery was dead at this time, but records would show she retrieved the voicemail and then switched the phone off.
When the police were unable to reach Steiniger by phone, they went to her mother’s home. Steiniger answered the door, clothes intact and unsoiled after she supposedly jumped from a second-floor balcony and walked two miles in the cold.
On Dec. 14, 2012, Mark Weiner was arrested. He had been incarcerated in the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail ever since.
It’s clear to me that more than one set of facts here should have rendered Steiniger’s testimony incredible from the outset. The contradictions regarding the cell phone usage and battery are enough to establish that alone. The prosecution should already have had red flags.
But it gets much worse. There was further exonerating evidence:
Records later showed that Steiniger’s phone accessed two cellphone towers near her mother’s house dozens of times that night, but never once pinged a tower near the abandoned house. . . .
As part of her prosecution strategy, Weiner’s trial lawyer later said, Lunsford “sought the advice of two respected detectives in the city and the county” to pinpoint where the alleged victim’s text messages had originated. Each cop concluded independently that the texts had been sent from near where Steiniger’s mother lived. Lunsford interviewed the first officer for the first time at the courthouse, just before he was scheduled to testify. He told the prosecutor he’d guess the calls came from Steiniger’s mother’s house, not the abandoned property.
Some prosecutors would call that sort of thing exculpatory information that must legally be turned over to the defense. Lunsford thanked the officer for stopping by and said she would no longer be needing his testimony after all. (This officer would later call the defense attorney and tell him what had transpired.) The second law enforcement officer offered up the same conclusion. He didn’t get to testify, either.
When defense counsel learned of the cellphone evidence and attempted to use one of the detectives as a defense witness, Lunsford had him disqualified as an expert, objecting to the fact that the defense attorney hadn’t subpoenaed the right witnesses to get the phone record evidence in. When the defense lawyer asked in chambers for a continuance so that he could call the correct witnesses, the motion was denied by trial court Judge Cheryl Higgins. Jurors would never hear what the phone tower records showed. Local lawyers and trial observers were shocked.
A law professor who reviewed the case commented: “Leaving aside the fact that a competent prosecutor is not learning the underlying facts of her case mid-trial, this was the kind of exculpatory evidence that would cause a fair prosecutor, honoring her obligation to seek and serve justice, to dismiss the charge. Instead, she successfully argued against their admissibility in court. In the wrongful conviction world, the nicest description we have for this phenomenon is ‘tunnel vision.’”
“Tunnel vision” is putting it mildly. This is having a freight train roaring through the funnel. This is a case of ramrodded injustice. The article makes clear that no evidence was presented in the case that linked Weiner in any way to the abandoned house or to the cell phone, and no chemical-soaked cloth, or even chemical itself, was shown. Frankly, I am shocked that the jury convicted. But the exclusion of exculpatory evidence must be considered as a major factor in this unjust verdict.
And it doesn’t stop there. The article continues [emphases mine]:
In the spring of 2014, Weiner’s new lawyers filed a motion to set aside the jury verdict. They alleged ineffective assistance by his original trial counsel. (Among other errors, the first lawyer had found a matchbook in which Steiniger had written her phone number in case a job opened up at Food Lion, but didn’t put it into evidence.)
They also noted that Steiniger’s then-husband, Howard Steiniger, who was incarcerated at the time of the alleged attack, had signed an affidavit saying that she had admitted to making this story up in an attempt to get back at a guy named Mike [the boyfriend she was texting, apparently]. Her admission, he said, was made while they talked on the phone, on a recorded prison call.
Records of the call were destroyed when lawyers attempted to obtain them. The new defense team also informed the court that even Mills, the boyfriend, suspected Steiniger was lying when he texted her: “why did u lie to me.”
Weiner’s lawyers also presented an affidavit from anesthesiologist John Janes, testifying that there is no chemical that can be put on a rag and placed on someone’s face that would cause that person to pass out within 15 seconds. [Yes folks, those chloroform hankies in the movies are fallacious. It does not work like that.]
All of this was denied. Then,
In another motion, filed in April of 2015, Weiner’s attorneys told the court that they now had testimony from three former friends of Steiniger who said she drank and smoked pot several times at the abandoned house in 2012, despite her claim at trial that she had never been to the home before the alleged abduction.
Yet, the prosecutor did not budge. Then,
At a June 3 hearing, Judge Cheryl Higgins did not dispute most of the new allegations. But she claimed she didn’t have the authority to throw out the verdict and said the new claims could be raised on appeal. On June 9 she sentenced Weiner to 20 years in prison, with 12 years suspended.
After that final hearing, at which Mark Weiner was sentenced to eight years in prison for giving a young woman a ride home, [prosecutor] Lunsford explained why none of the new evidence mattered: “I interviewed the victim twice, and I believed her.”
And perhaps that’s the problem right there: Facing a mountain of evidence that showed there was no way the alleged victim could be telling the truth, the prosecutor believed her, then believed her, and then believed her some more.
Weiner was only finally released from jail when Steinger was later arrested separately trying to sell cocaine to undercover cops. This, at last, was judged to be something which impeached her credibility.
And for this series of injustices, a man spent two and a half years in jail, and lost his home and all his savings with no apparent intention of it being restored.
The authoress is exactly right: just because Weiner was freed does not mean the system worked. It did not. It failed terribly and inflicted harsh injuries upon an innocent man because of a lying woman and a state agent who desired to produce guilt rather than justice.
But there is more. A huge part of the problem is the lack of biblical protections which could have prevented this whole affair, and many more like it.
The Biblical Remedy
Long story short, biblical law requires multiple witnesses, thorough investigation, and that false witnesses be the ones who get punished.
The Word is clear: “If a malicious witness arises to accuse a person of wrongdoing. . . . The judges shall inquire diligently, and if the witness is a false witness and has accused his [or her] brother falsely, then you shall do to him as he had meant to do to his brother” (Deut. 19:16–19).
In short, there is a built-in check of accountability to prevent cases exactly like this from ever happening. And this law should be extended to the prosecutors (and in other cases, the police and the agencies, too). When they fail to “inquire diligently,” but instead harbor, protect, and represent the falsehood, then by the principle of representation, they become the “malicious witness” themselves. They should pay the price also.
The bottom line is this: there ought to be a solid principle of accountability for rogue, or even simply unsupported but persistent, accusers in society. This includes not only liars like Steiniger, but police, judges, and prosecutors who pervert justice on their own or others’ behalf.
In this particular case, a man was accused of kidnapping. Under biblical law, this is a capital crime. Anyone fabricating such a story and pressing charges, therefore, ought only to be allowed to do so under pain of the same punishment if their story is revealed to be a lie. In short, Steiniger would never have alleged this case, or if she did, she would be on her way to being sentenced to execution right now. Under the present system, the same principle would say that she should be tried, convicted, and then sentenced to the 20 years (12 commuted) to which Weiner would have been. The fact that she has subsequently been imprisoned on drug charges may seem like poetic justice, but it is irrelevant to this case. It is separate and should be considered so.
The government and prosecutors also ought to held accountable for such injustices at least to the extent they have imposed hardships and losses on Weiner and his family. Every dime he has lost and every cent of property he has lost, plus consideration for the value of his lost job and reputation, with interest, ought to be restored at the expense of the parties involved—not by the state via the taxpayers, but the prosecutor herself, as well as any others.
If prosecutors faced such checks, they would be much slower to “err on the side of prosecution,” as one lawyer recently told me is a norm. They would be much less likely to prosecute people with the full power and resources of the state, destroying innocent lives, for “just in case” scenarios. They would certainly not engage in prosecutorial crusades against evidence, tossing out and suppressing evidence, and facing no consequences. Under a biblical system, such an accuser could quickly find themselves being hit personally with expenses borne by a hapless defendant, and that could lead to a lifetime of heavily-garnished wages, to put it mildly, paying to restore a victim of the system like Weiner.
It is simply time that lawmakers and judges, especially Christians, begin to consider the biblical law for the punishment of malicious or false witnesses. For want of this simple principle of accountability, injustices permeate every area of our lives today. Peoples’ lives can be at the very least interrupted. Many are beset, and some ruined without remedy. Families are bereft, and in some cases literally torn apart by largely unaccountable agents of the state and its administrative arms. Accountability for the state as a protector of false witness is a key to restoring Christian liberty and civilization going forward. Without it, life, liberty, and property are at the mercy of the whims of such prosecutors, judges, and any falsehoods they can be tempted, for whatever reason, to harbor.