Mark Weiner wanted to do a good deed by giving a young woman who was walking alone at night a ride home. Unfortunately for Weiner, that young woman was looking to get sympathy from a man she was dating. So as Weiner drove her home, the woman, Chelsea Steiniger, texted her boyfriend, Michael Mills, claiming she had been abducted for sexual purposes.
Steiniger alleged that within a span of 28 minutes, Weiner "tried to get in my pants," wouldn't let her out of the car at her mother's house and then took control of her phone to send threatening texts to Steiniger's boyfriend. In one of those messages allegedly sent by Weiner, he told Mills: "[S]hes [sic] in my house she said she was cold so IMMa [sic] warm her up."
Weiner was a 52-year-old manager at the local Food Lion, perhaps not the type of person one would expect to text "IMMa" to someone.
Steiniger would later testify that Weiner drove past her mother's house, incapacitated her with a chemical-soaked rag and took her to a rural property to rape her. She claimed she had escaped by jumping off a second-floor balcony, hiding in the woods and walking two miles to her mother's house. At no time did she call the police.
Mills did call the police, who tried to contact Steiniger, But she had turned off her phone after checking her voicemail. Police then went to Steiniger's home. She answered the door looking exactly like someone who had not just jumped out a window and trekked through the woods.
Despite this, Weiner was arrested. The prosecutor for the case, Denise Lunsford, didn't turn over potentially exculpatory evidence to the defense. Lunsford had spoken to two cops who said cell phone records indicated that Steiniger's phone pinged two towers near her mother's house but none near the house she was allegedly taken to by Weiner. Lunsford declined to allow the policemen to testify and didn't notify the defense of their evidence.
As Slate's Dahlia Lithwick noted, no physical evidence tied Weiner to the rural house or Steiniger's phone. Weiner was convicted based solely on Steiniger's testimony and was sent to prison.
Weiner hired new lawyers, who discovered evidence of his innocence and argued that his former lawyers were ineffective. The first lawyers failed to put into evidence a matchbook that Steiniger had written her phone number on for Weiner because, he said, she wanted a job at Food Lion. The new lawyers also provided a text from Steiniger's boyfriend asking her why she lied to him about the encounter.
Weiner's new lawyers also consulted an anesthesiologist, who informed them that no chemical existed that could have incapacitated Steiniger the way she described.
Despite this, Weiner was sentenced to 20 years with 12 years suspended. That sentence would later be reduced to eight years.
Now, two and a half years later, Weiner has been vindicated. The decision came not from the aforementioned evidence, but because Steiniger was subsequently caught selling cocaine. The prosecutor argued that the cocaine would hurt Steiniger's credibility, and the judge vacated Weiner's sentence.
Lithwick argues that anyone who suggests Weiner's release proves "the system works" is wrong.
"Mark Weiner's freedom did not come about this week because the system worked. It came about because the system protected the system from abject embarrassment," Lithwick wrote. "That isn't justice. That's just sad."
Weiner was railroaded by a system that is supposed to have checks and balances to prevent wrongful convictions. What happened to Weiner is happening across the country to college students accused of sexual assault — except in those cases, the accused are not given the chance to meaningfully defend themselves.
If "the system" can fail an innocent man even with all the due process protections afforded to him, what chance do college students have without those protections?