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Cornelius News

Missing Madalina: The mystery isn’t the point, jurors told

By Mark Washburn. May 22. Jury selection began Wednesday in the trial of the stepfather of missing Cornelius teenager Madalina Cojocari with one promise from the prosecutor:

“What happened to Madalina is not what this case is about,” said Austin Butler, assistant district attorney. “I don’t anticipate anyone learning where Madalina is during this case.”

Butler told potential jurors that from the prosecution’s viewpoint, all that needed to be proven in the case against Christopher Palmiter was that he was serving as a parent for the girl and did not report her disappearance in a timely manner to police.


Madalina, a sixth-grader at Bailey Middle School, has not been seen since Nov. 21, 2022, when she got off the school bus in her Victoria Bay neighborhood for Thanksgiving break. After a school counselor asked the parents about the girl’s post-holiday absence, her parents admitted they had not seen her in three weeks. They were arrested and charged with failure to report a missing child.

Diana Cojocari, the girl’s mother, pleaded guilty to the charge this week and was sentenced to time served in the Mecklenburg County Jail, the 17 months and 10 days she’d spent there since her arrest in December 2022. Palmiter bonded out of jail after eight months and has been free since.

No other charges have been brought in the case, which has transfixed the region, at least those who follow local news. No trace of the missing girl has been found.

Crux of the case

Butler’s focus on the twin aspects of his case—parental roles and not reporting a disappearance —appeared to stave off any attempts by the defense to introduce other issues that might lead jurors to provide an excuse for Palmiter’s conduct.

D Cojocari

Butler said his side of the case might last only a day with few witnesses. He said he intended to introduce evidence from Bailey Middle School that Cojocari and Palmiter were understood to be the girl’s parents, and that police would testify about an interview with Palmiter about his understanding of what happened to Madalina.

He also said there would be a 50-minute video of Palmiter being interviewed by police on the day the girl’s disappearance was disclosed. A school bus driver is also expected to testify, he said.

But Butler told jurors that the witness list filed by the defense had 35 names on it—many of them Palmiter’s relatives. He indicated this could signal that jurors might be led to facts that could build sympathy for Palmiter, despite the narrow confines of the offense.

He asked a show of hands from jurors who would agree if the evidence met the legal standards of the violation, they would return a guilty verdict. All raised a hand.

Det. Patterson

Paying close attention to the interviews of potential jurors Wednesday at the Mecklenburg County Courthouse in Charlotte were Cornelius Det. Gina Patterson, the lead investigator on Madalina’s disappearance, and Deputy Chief Jennifer Thompson.

Palmiter’s trial is expected to last into next week, jurors were told. Monday is a court holiday for Memorial Day.

Intense media coverage

Media coverage of the case and potential exposure of the wide-ranging, 17-month investigation was a concern, particularly to Superior Court Judge Matt Osman.

He said before jury selection began that all candidates would be asked about their knowledge of the case. He said that he would inform the jurors of the names of the three principals in the mystery—parents Christopher Palmiter, Diana Cojocari, and the missing Madalina Cojocari.

He said that Madalina would have to be described in careful terms: She could not be described as the “victim” in the case as her whereabouts are unknown, indeed whether she is alive or dead.

Instead, he described her repeatedly to jurors as the “child at issue” in the case.

Few candidates knew of case

But of the first dozen jurors interviewed, only a few were said they aware of the case and only one could recite vague details.

One woman said she might have heard something about a missing girl, but added she only watched the news for the weather, leading to laughter in the courtroom. “Weather on the eights,” quipped Osman, a 14-year veteran judge in Mecklenburg, parroting the slogan for Spectrum News, a cable news channel serving Charlotte.

Another potential juror from North Mecklenburg said he was familiar with the case, knew the search for Madalina was continuing and had seen coverage of the recent vigil held at Cornelius City Hall on what would have been Madalina’s 13th birthday.

But he said he had formed no opinions and could be trusted to treat the case with an open mind.

Brandon Roseman, Palmiter’s attorney, asked Osman to dismiss the juror, but Osman refused.

“I did not think the things he shared would influence him in this case,” Osman said.

But several jury candidates interviewed later said they were well acquainted with the mystery. Two from North Mecklenburg were dismissed after they said they both followed the case closely and both frequently ponder it when passing the makeshift shrine to Madalina erected in front of the Cornelius Police Department headquarters on Catawba Avenue.

Another juror from South Mecklenburg said he’d heard about the case in 2022 and probably had formed a negative opinion of Palmiter because he couldn’t understand why Madalina’s disappearance went unreported. “It’s just human nature,” he explained. He was dismissed.

Another juror was dismissed after expressing concern that he might be triggered judging a case involving a child. He had granddaughters, he explained, and could not say with assurance that he could remain impartial in a case about a missing girl.

“Thank you for your honesty,” Osman said.

Jury selection will resume Thursday morning.