Legal analyst says defense faces ‘make or break’ decision of whether or not to put Belstadt on the stand

Mandy Steingasser Cold Case

NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y. (WIVB) — A verdict 28 years in the making could start to be deliberated Friday. The jury in the Joseph Belstadt trial is days away from getting the case.

Belstadt is accused of killing 17-year-old Mandy Steingasser in 1993.

The prosecution rested Tuesday and court resumes Friday morning. Due to a gag order on the case, it’s unclear whether the defense will call witnesses.

Prosecutors called 43 witnesses who gave testimony about everything from DNA to the last time Steingasser was seen alive: getting into Beldstadt’s car.

All things considered, a jury will have to decide if he killed her that night.

Attorney Barry Covert has been following the case and said for the most part, it seems strong.

“The DNA evidence seems to be lacking against Mr. Belstadt, but then again the hairs that were found from the victim in the back of his vehicle, that seems to be very damaging,” Covert said.

Testimony revealed those two hairs were the only DNA of Steingasser’s found in Belstadt’s car and none of Belstadt’s DNA was found on her clothes.

Witnesses also said her body was significantly decomposed when it was found which can break down DNA.

Experts also testified DNA from Steingasser’s boyfriend at the time, Christopher Palesh, was found in her underwear. Prosecutors ruled him out as a suspect because he said he was in Florida at the time Steingasser disappeared.

Other evidence is circumstantial, including Belstadt’s lie to police that he was in Canada when Steingasser went missing, which he later recanted, Belstadt not returning to school after her disappearance, and Steingasser getting into his car the last time she was seen alive.

Throughout testimony, several witnesses had trouble recalling exactly what happened back in 1993, and had to refresh their memories with the statements they made 28 years ago.

“Cold cases are definitely harder for the prosecution because you do have losses of memory over time,” Covert said. “That in and of itself can be reasonable doubt, that so much time has gone by and memories have faded and the evidence may have been lost.”

But prosecutors built their case around the two pubic hairs found in the backseat. The defense tried to show the evidence wasn’t handled properly or the hairs could’ve been transferred by the wind.

“There is going to be, in the juror’s mind, a request they’re gonna have to explain her private hairs being in his vehicle and what caused that. So now the defense has a very difficult decision are they gonna start introducing proof, especially are they gonna put the client on the stand.”

Covert said putting the defendant on the stand can make or break a case.

“Once you put Mr. Belstadt on the stand, the jury’s focus is now purely on his credibility, purely upon his version of what occurred, and whether they believe him or not regardless of what they heard from the prosecution up to that point.”

The judge told the jury Tuesday he expects them to get the case by Monday at the latest.

Kayla Green is a reporter who has been part of the News 4 team since 2021. See more of her work here.

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