The recently disbarred lawyer who defended North Idaho attorney Edgar Steele at his murder-for-hire trial said in a motion seeking a new trial for Steele that he acted ineffectively because he was distracted by his own legal problems.
Robert McAllister said his thinking process during Steele’s trial in Boise, which ended in May with Steele’s conviction on all counts, was disrupted by the pending disbarment proceeding in Colorado, which stemmed from allegations that he embezzled money from clients.
“I assumed I could perform as well as I had performed previously, not understanding the full extent that the prospect of disbarment would have on me,” McAllister wrote in a 50-page motion filed this week in U.S. District Court in Coeur d’Alene.
Steele, 65, is to be sentenced Nov. 14 for hiring a hitman to kill his wife and her mother with a pipe bomb strapped to her car.
Steele faces at least 30 years in prison; he has been in custody since his arrest on June 10, 2010. An 11-woman, 1-man jury convicted him of four felonies May 5 after a two-week trial in Boise.
The motion, drafted by Steele’s new lawyer, Wesley Hoyt, calls for a new trial based on ineffective counsel and alleged prosecutorial and FBI misconduct, among other issues. Hoyt once represented the alleged victim, Cyndi Steele.
Hoyt said McAllister failed to subpoena audio expert George Papcun, whom Hoyt said would have provided crucial testimony regarding the authenticity of audio recordings in which Steele discusses the plot to kill his wife with hit man-turned-FBI informant Larry Fairfax. Papcun was on vacation during the trial and was unable to testify.
Coeur d’Alene lawyer Gary Amendola, who was Steele’s co-counsel early in his trial, blames McAllister for failing to secure Papcun’s presence. He said he believes McAllister didn’t properly prepare for the trial.
“His cross-examination of witnesses called by the United States was disjointed and random and often did not get to the issue that needed to be addressed,” Amendola wrote. “His examination of witnesses called by the defense was equally weak, disjointed and random. He also paid little attention to directives from Edgar Steele.”
Amendola calls McAllister’s closing argument “rambling and ineffective” and said he failed to address key legal issues, including those raised in jury instructions.
McAllister took over the case from Roger Peven, executive director of the Federal Defenders of Eastern Washington and North Idaho. Hoyt alleged Peven also provided ineffective counsel because he was “seriously distracted” by legal proceedings regarding alleged poor management of the office. Steele has said he is the victim of a government conspiracy to silence him because of his views on politics and race.
Steele defended late Aryan Nations leader Richard Butler against the 2000 civil lawsuit from the Southern Poverty Law Center that bankrupted the racist group.
The motion alleges nongovernment organizations like the SPLC and Anti-Defamation League pressured the U.S. attorney’s office to prosecute Steele. U.S. Attorney Wendy Olson has said no one knew of Steele until Fairfax told the FBI he’d been hired to kill his wife.
The motion also said Steele’s mental state was compromised “by his arrest, solitary confinement and sudden withdrawal of prescription pain medications” but his lawyers failed to explore the issue.
The U.S. attorney’s office has until Sept. 12 to respond to the motion.