NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y. — "It's not Joe."
That's the refrain the attorney representing Joseph Belstadt used more than a dozen times on Friday, during her nearly 2.5-hour closing argument at Belstadt's Niagara County Court murder trial, which began three weeks ago.
The prosecutor also spoke for nearly two hours in his closing remarks at the trial where Belstadt, 46, is charged with the 1993 murder of a high school classmate Mandy Steingasser, a 17-year-old whose body was found strangled in Bond Lake Park several weeks after she was last seen getting into Belstadt’s car in North Tonawanda.
Police considered Belstadt a prime suspect in the killing, but it wasn’t until April of 2018, some 25 years after Steingasser’s death, that he was charged after a review of DNA evidence using more sophisticated means than existed back in 1993.
Since his arrest more than three-and-a-half years ago, Belstadt, who has maintained his innocence, has been free on $250,000 bail.
The trial stretched over more three weeks and featured 45 witnesses, the credibility of whom, along with the evidence, came under fire by Belstadt's lawyer, Michelle G. Bergevin.
Though Belstadt was the last known person to have been seen with Steingasser while she was alive, Bergevin insisted that police viewed her client as" low-hanging fruit" in their effort to make a case against someone.
While reminding jurors that the case against her client is largely circumstantial, she noted the absence of what would have been several key witnesses from the initial investigation 28 years ago, many of whom had died, and others who had trouble recollecting details from back then.
She took particular aim at Christopher Grassi, who lives in Endicott, who was called to the stand by prosecutors and testified that while he was in prison with Belstadt 20 years ago, Belstadt told him about being involved in threesome in his car, during which a girl was strangled.
Grassi was in prison for insurance fraud, and Bergevin openly referred to him as "the fraudster."
"He was doing a favor for the cops, who did him a favor and saved him seven years (on his sentence). That fraudster is their star witness. Does that sound desperate to you?"
Bergevin further described the prosecutions case as speculative.
"They don't have any proof except all these disjointed bricks ... which they are trying to put together with no mortar, and none of them fit," she said.
Niagara County District Attorney Brian Seaman was just as adamant in his closing argument that enough evidence was presented to jurors in order for them to find Belstadt guilty of murder beyond a reasonable doubt, and to send him to prison for up to 25 years to life.
According to the prosecution's theory, Belstadt drove Steingasser to a secluded section of the park where her body was found, where she rebuffed his sexual advances, after which Belstadt, in a fit of frustration, beat and then strangled her.
"You, the jury, now know what happened to Mandy Steingasser, and now it's time for you to hold this defendant accountable for this crime," Seaman said at the conclusion of his summation.
The jury will return to the courtroom on Monday and, after receiving final instructions from the judge, will begin their deliberations.