Belstadt

Defendant Joseph H. Belstadt, left, listens as his attorneys Dominic Saraceno, center, and Mark Murphy look on as his other attorney Michele (one L) Bergevin gives a opening statement at Niagara County Courthouse before County Court Judge Sara Sheldon, in Lockport, on Thursday.

LOCKPORT — The expected start of the Mandy Steingasser murder trial, with a new judge and, likely, new lead prosecutor, has been postponed indefinitely.

Acting Niagara County Court Judge Sheila DiTullio had set the start of jury selection for Feb. 1, but during a pretrial conference on Thursday, that was changed. Restrictions, put in in place as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, have shut down the scheduling of all trials in New York indefinitely.

DiTullio is set to meet with the attorneys in the case again on March 3. 

Former Niagara County District Attorney Caroline Wojtaszek, now a county court judge, had led the investigation into the 27-year-old cold case homicide. That investigation led to the arrest of Joseph Belstadt in April 2018.

With Wojtaszek gone, Executive Assistant District Attorney Mary Jean Bowman and Assistant District Attorney John Granchelli are expected to take the lead in the prosecution of the matter. Both were a part of the original prosecution team.

The case was originally on the calendar of Niagara County Court Judge Sara Sheldon. Sheldon, who reached the mandatory retirement age for judges in New York, stepped down from the bench at the end of September.

State Supreme Court Justice Paula Feroleto, the chief administrative judge of the state’s Eighth Judicial District, tapped DiTullio to take over the case.

A Lockport High graduate, DiTullio is a former assistant Erie County district attorney, who has served as an acting State Supreme Court justice as well as an Erie County Court judge.

The appointment of DiTullio had been expected to push the selection of a new jury to hear the case into 2021. 

Belstadt’s trial came to a crashing halt in March in the wake of the novel coronavirus outbreak.

After opening statements and just one day of testimony in what was widely expected to be a six- to eight-week long trial, Sheldon granted a motion by the attorneys for the accused killer 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.

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.

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