Andrea Sneiderman has been under suspicion almost from the moment her former boss was charged in January 2011 with fatally shooting her husband outside a Dunwoody day care facility.
Now, nearly a year to the day since her arrest and on the eve of what was expected to be the metro area’s most sensational murder trial in years, the biggest lingering question — whether Sneiderman was complicit in her husband’s death — will go unanswered.
During a tumultuous hearing Friday, Sneiderman and those who’ve followed every twist and turn of her case learned that the murder charge against her had been formally dismissed. On Monday morning, jury selection began in her trial on 13 lesser counts.
Jury selection is expected to last the rest of the week, with opening statements to follow.
The move by DeKalb County District Attorney Robert James to dismiss the murder charge was not unexpected. But there was plenty of drama, as Superior Court Judge Gregory A. Adams did not immediately grant the request. Then, while Adams took a lengthy break, Sneiderman huddled with her parents and one of her lawyers behind closed doors, where she considered and ultimately rejected a plea offer from prosecutors, according to two people with direct knowledge of the case.
For those who’ve been transfixed by the gripping tale, the dismissal of the murder charge was an unsatisfying climax. Sneiderman’s defenders say it’s justice long overdue, blasting James for pursuing charges that were shaky from the start. Her detractors — including Rusty Sneiderman’s immediate family, who watched from the courtroom Friday — say she’s gotten away with murder.
The 37-year-old mother of two faces four perjury counts, seven counts of making false statements and one count each of hindering the apprehension of a criminal and concealing a material fact in connection with the death of her husband, Rusty. Adams, a tough sentencing judge, could give Sneiderman harsher punishment if she is convicted at trial than what was offered in plea negotiations.
But it’s unlikely that Sneiderman, even if convicted, would serve much prison time, said attorney Jay Abt, who represents Shayna Citron, once Sneiderman’s best friend and a key player in the case against her.
“As a result of Robert James’ actions, (Sneiderman) gets the dough, she gets the kids, she gets away with murder,” Abt said. He was referring to the roughly $2.5 million Sneiderman received from two life insurance policies, and to her two young children, who would have been the subject of a custody dispute had she been convicted of murder.
Its unclear whether the hordes of local and national media who had planned to cover the upcoming trial will continue to descend on downtown Decatur to provide gavel-to-gavel coverage. But not everyone is ready to move on.
“No one can believe it,” said David Weinberg, part of a group of people who’ve avidly followed the case since the trial of Sneiderman’s former supervisor. (In March 2012, Hemy Neuman was found guilty but mentally ill and sentenced to life without parole.)
“People want to know what’s changed from two weeks ago to today to cause (James) to drop the murder charges,” Weinberg said. “Everyone’s just shocked.”
The case against Sneiderman developed gradually. Two months after Neuman was arrested, his estranged wife, Ariela, alleged Sneiderman and Neuman, co-workers at GE Energy, were having an affair.
Court documents showed Neuman and Sneiderman took several trips together in the months before Rusty Sneiderman’s death, going to Colorado in July 2010 and to Great Britain a few months later. About a month before the shooting, Neuman moved out of the east Cobb home he shared with his wife and their three children.
Neuman and Andrea Sneiderman were in constant contact — exchanging hundreds of emails, texts and phone calls — before and after her husband’s killing, a search warrant revealed. Then, in August 2011, the lead detective testified Sneiderman steered authorities away from her boss.
A month later, Neuman changed his plea to not guilty by reason of insanity, acknowledging he was the gunman. Neuman claimed he acted alone, but his attorneys argued Sneiderman was pulling the strings.
“I believe Andrea Sneiderman planted the seed, primed the pump, stoked the fire,” Neuman co-counsel Doug Peters said after his client’s conviction. “I think the evidence in this case indicates quite clearly she knew how she wanted her husband murdered, and she manipulated Hemy Neuman to have it done.”
James also said he held “strong beliefs” about Sneiderman’s involvement.
“Just the Hollywood nature of this case … it’s the ‘Double Indemnity’ storyline all over again,” Weinberg said in explanation of the widespread and sustained public interest in the case. His interest only intensified, he said, during Neuman’s trial when Sneiderman was called to the stand, ostensibly to testify against her former boss.
What transpired were hours of gripping courtroom drama as a combative Sneiderman deflected one loaded accusation after another from the state and Neuman’s defense team.
But prosecutors had set a trap, and Sneiderman walked right into it, said Don Geary, DeKalb’s former chief assistant district attorney. “It was a very tactical move and it was a tactical move to do it first,” said Geary, now a Cobb County prosecutor.
Sneiderman testified she first learned her husband had been shot after she arrived at Atlanta Medical Center. This set up crucial testimony from Citron and Don Sneiderman, Rusty’s father, who said Andrea Sneiderman called them before she got to the hospital and said Rusty had been shot.
“Hemy didn’t hide his crime from Andrea because Andrea already knew,” James said in his closing argument at Neuman’s trial.
After getting a murder indictment against Sneiderman, James told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution he was “as confident as it gets” about her guilt.
But James said Friday his confidence recently began to wane after receiving information from the defense and re-interviewing witnesses. “It would be unjust and unethical for the District Attorney’s Office to move forward on a charge I’m not 100 percent sure someone is guilty of,” James said.
Geary, who drafted the initial indictment, remains convinced of Sneiderman’s guilt. ‘“I’m surprised the murder charges are being dropped, given the evidence that’s already been made public. But it was Robert James’ decision to charge Andrea in the first place, so it’s up to him if he wants to change his mind.”
Ryan Stansbury, a close friend of Sneiderman’s, angrily criticized James after Friday’s hearing, saying it has long been clear she had no role in the murder. Because she was wrongly accused to begin with, he said, “a cloud of suspicion will hang over her head forever.”
As for the remaining counts against her, Stansbury said, “I am happy it’s going to trial. The evidence is overwhelmingly in her favor. She will be completely exonerated.”
On Friday, Sneiderman’s attorney, Tom Clegg, sought to delay the trial at least six months because of the sensational publicity.
“I’m dumbstruck by the degree of attention,” Clegg said. “I don’t see how on earth she can get a fair trial in the situation we are in.”
Adams denied the request.
Once the case is over, it’s unclear whether the saga will live on as a book or Hollywood production.
Last August, while briefly detained after her arrest, Sneiderman mused as to what actress might play her in a movie.
“I was thinking if Sandra Bullock wasn’t so old, she’d be a good choice,” Sneiderman said, according to jailhouse recordings. “I watched the ‘Miss Congeniality’ movie … and I thought that she kind of has my personality.”