Judge denies change-of-venue request for Steele trial
A federal judge in Idaho has denied a request by defense lawyers to move a murder-for-hire trial to Wyoming.
While Edgar Steele’s case has received media attention, lawyers Robert McAllister and Gary Amendola have not shown that the area is “saturated” with prejudicial publicity about the alleged crimes, U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill ruled today.
If the court decides during voir dire that finding an impartial jury in North Idaho is impossible, the trial will be moved to Pocatello or Boise, Winmill said.
Winmill said Steele did not provide basis for moving the trial beyond references to news organizations that have covered the case and “broad and speculative” allegations against staff at the Spokane County Jail, where Steele is in custody.
McAllister and Amendola, asking for the trial to be moved to Cheyenne, Wyo., said the release of recordings of Steele’s phone calls to his wife and son, which are the basis for a witness tampering charge against Steele, was assisted by the U.S. government or Spokane County Jail officials. The phone calls were actually made from the Kootenai County Jail.
The Spokesman-Review obtained the recordings after they were played in open court at Steele’s bail hearing last June.
Winmill said there is no way to determine whether jurors have listened to the tapes.
“There is also no indication that listening to the recordings or reading these articles have prejudiced prospective jurors,” Winmill wrote. “Defendant does not reference any specific articles which are particularly negative or inflammatory.”
Federal prosecutors objected to the request and said that “mere publicity is no basis on which to grant change of venue.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Traci Whelan called a venue change in a federal case “unusual” and noted that while one was granted in the Oklahoma City bombing case, a change of venue request regarding the 1993 World Trade Center bombing case was denied.
Steele, a self-described “attorney for the damned” who defended the Aryan Nations, is accused of hiring a hitman turned FBI informant to kill his wife, Cyndi Steele. Prosecutors say he was involved with another woman overseas. In a prepared statement, Cyndi Steele says she knew of the woman, who she says was contacted by her husband as part of his ongoing legal work to stop human trafficking.
The trial is set to begin March 7.