They put their best arguments forward, but the prosecution and defense's opening statements in the Joseph Belstadt murder trial showed the weaknesses in their cases as much as the strengths.
The prosecution will try to overcome the lack of any direct evidence that Belstadt killed Mandy Steingasser, 17, in September 1993.
The defense will need to explain Belstadt's suspicious behavior in the days following her disappearance.
Unless there's a "Perry Mason moment," an appearance by a surprise witness who clinches the case, no one is expected to testify to seeing Steingasser's killing. Surprises like that happen in TV shows and movies, but rarely in real-life trials.
So Niagara County District Attorney Caroline A. Wojtaszek and her team intend to pile up circumstantial evidence against Belstadt, 44, whose trial started Thursday and will resume Monday.
But it's the same circumstantial evidence that two former district attorneys – Wojtaszek's predecessors – deemed insufficient to present to a grand jury.
In their opening, prosecutors John P. Granchelli and Mary Jean Bowman went relatively easy on the newly generated forensic evidence against Belstadt, including confirmation that two of Steingasser's pubic hairs were found in Belstadt's car when police vacuumed it in 1993.
It took a quarter-century before DNA testing techniques became sophisticated enough to prove the hairs were Steingasser's.
By contrast, defense attorney Michele G. Bergevin spent more time talking about the forensic evidence.
She acknowledged the hairs were Steingasser's, but she told the jury over and over about tests on various objects, including Steingasser's panties, that didn't contain Belstadt's DNA.
"Joseph Belstadt was excluded," Bergevin said at least a dozen times of the DNA testing that she believes helps her case.
In pretrial arguments over the forensic evidence, Bergevin said an issue at the trial will be how the two pubic hairs were detached from Steingasser's body, to be left in Belstadt's car.
There was argument over whether the prosecution has a witness who has expertise in hair pulling.
Bergevin said the North Tonawanda police tried various angles to try to tie Belstadt to the crime. They even sampled dirt from the bottom of Belstadt's car, to see if it matched soil from Bond Lake County Park, where Steingasser's body was found by two hikers Oct. 25, 1993.
The dirt didn't match, Bergevin said.
Nor did the car dirt match soil from the vicinity of the old Roblin Steel plant in North Tonawanda. Bergevin said police theorized that Steingasser might have been killed there.
"Think about the evidence, and think about reasonable doubt," Bergevin told the jury.
She said DNA in the panties came from Steingasser's ex-boyfriend. County Judge Sara Sheldon ruled before the trial that the defense can assert he might be the killer, forcing the prosecution to present evidence to prove its contention that the ex-boyfriend had left town before the night Steingasser went missing.
They started that task with the very first witnesses Friday. Both Loraine Steingasser, the victim's mother, and Stacie Blazynski, who was with Mandy on her last night out, said the boyfriend had moved away, leaving North Tonawanda for Florida on Sept. 17, 1993, two days before Mandy went missing.
"She knew when she started talking to him that he was moving to Florida," Blazynski testified.
Meanwhile, early testimony suggested that Belstadt was an unknown figure to those closest to Steingasser.
The victim's mother testified that she looked through the addresses and phone numbers her daughter left behind, and found no mention of Belstadt.
"I never saw him until the day he got arrested, on TV," Loraine Steingasser said. "Then I knew what he looked like."
Blazynski, who called Mandy Steingasser "my great friend, like a sister," said she'd never heard of Belstadt at the time.
However, she moved from North Tonawanda to Amherst when she was a ninth-grader and no longer attended school in North Tonawanda. She remained close to Mandy Steingasser, going out with her and two young men on the night of Sept. 18.
But Belstadt's conduct immediately raised red flags for police.
According to Granchelli's opening statement, on Sept. 19, Belstadt showed up at the home of Wayne Mielcarek, one of the young men who went out with Steingasser and Blazynski the night before, to tell him that he had picked the young woman up on Oliver Street, gave her a short ride and dropped her off in front of a church at Oliver Street and First Avenue.
"He came over out of the blue. I didn't know how he knew where I lived. I hadn't seen him since high school," Mielcarek, who was 21 at the time, testified Friday.
"He said he gave her a ride that night, that morning. I said he should go to the police station," said Mielcarek, who described Belstadt as "just kind of worried, jumpy."
"He seemed worried about her. Maybe they were friends?" Mielcarek said on the stand.
However, Bergevin produced a police report from Nov. 9, 1993, in which Mielcarek said that Belstadt's visit came on Sept. 20, not Sept. 19. She also offered an FBI report that said Belstadt approached him two days after the disappearance.
"The timing got messed up because it was overnight," Mielcarek testified.
But before Belstadt talked to the police, he went through some other versions of his story, Granchelli said.
They included one in which he asked two friends, Jerry Miller and Sherry Carrazzolo, to tell police that Belstadt had gone to Canada in the early hours of Sept. 19. They did so, Granchelli said.
In fact, Granchelli said, Belstadt had refused to go to Canada with Miller and some others because he was so upset over having received a traffic ticket in the City of Tonawanda about 12:30 that morning.
Belstadt went to North Tonawanda Police Headquarters on Sept. 21 and told Detective Glenn Gardner that he had gone to Canada. The next day, Granchelli said, Miller told police Belstadt had gone to Canada.
Granchelli said on Sept. 22, Belstadt asked two other friends, Wendy Backes and Sean Hanahan, to relay that alibi to police, too.
"He lied, and he asked other people to lie for him," Granchelli told the jury.
But some of the friends gave up the fake alibi story and told police the truth, the prosecutor said.
On Sept. 22, Belstadt went back to Police Headquarters and recanted his earlier story about going to Canada.
According to Granchelli, when asked why he offered that account, Belstadt said, "I thought I needed a witness to where I was that night after I dropped Mandy Steingasser off."
In her opening statement, Bergevin told the jury that Belstadt lied.
"I want you to think about why an 18-year-old boy, who probably didn't trust the police, might lie," Bergevin said.
She said her client "decided he needed to have an explanation about where he went."
But Bergevin acknowledged that was the error that made Belstadt a suspect – "the rock that started the avalanche," as the defense attorney put it.