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United States of America v. Edgar J. Steele

November 8, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: B. Lynn Winmill Chief Judge United States District Court



The Court has before it Defendant Edgar J. Steele's Motion for a New Trial (Dkt. 234) and Supplemental Motion for a New Trial (Dkt. 291). For the reasons sets forth below, the Steele's request for a new trial is denied.


On May 5, 2011, a jury convicted Defendant Edgar J. Steele on four counts: (1) use of interstate commerce facilities in commission of murder for hire, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1958; (2) aiding and abetting use of explosive material to commit a federal felony, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 844(h); (3) aiding and abetting possession of a destructive device in relation to a crime of violence, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1)(B)(ii); and (4) tampering with a victim, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1512(b)(3).

Steele now moves for a new trial. He argues that he should be granted a new trial or the case should be dismissed because: (1) the evidence did not establish jurisdiction under 18 U.S.C. § 1958 for Counts I and II of the Indictment; (2) the Court incorrectly charged the jury; (3) the Government engaged in prosecutorial misconduct; (4) the FBI agents engaged in misconduct; (5) his counsel was ineffective; (6) the Court was biased against him and in favor of the Government; and (7) he was denied a public trial.

Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 33 allows a district court to grant a new trial if the interests of justice so require or based on newly discovered evidence. Fed.R.Crim.P. 33. It must be shown that the newly discovered evidence would probably have resulted in the defendant's acquittal." Gordon v. Duran, 895 F.2d 610, 614-15 (9th Cir.1990)

1.Lack of Jurisdiction

Steele first contends that the government failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that jurisdiction existed under 18 U.S.C. § 1958 for Counts I and II of the Indictment. Steele's argument raises an evidentiary question: whether the government presented sufficient evidence at trial to prove that Steele caused Larry Fairfax to travel across state lines in connection with Steele's plot to kill his wife. 18 U.S.C. § 1958. Interstate travel triggers federal jurisdiction for both Counts I and II, since both require the same nexus to interstate commerce. U.S. v. Driggers, 559 F.3d 1021, 1024 (9th Cir. 2009).

Steele argues that the required nexus to interstate commerce did not exist because Fairfax and James Maher travel to Oregon on June 11, 2010 at the behest of the government -- not Steele. Therefore, argues Steele, he "has standing to raise intrusion upon the sovereignty of the State of Idaho under the Tenth Amendment as expressed in Bond,*fn1 such that Defendant's intra-state Idaho crimes, if any, must be prosecuted locally." Def.'s Reply at 2, Dkt. 308. Steele cites U.S. v. Coates, 949 F.2d 104, 106 (4th Cir. 1991) to support his argument. While Coates did involve a similar claim that the government manufactured jurisdiction, it is clearly distinguishable from the facts of this case.

In Coates, the defendant unwittingly contacted a government informer to carry out the murder of his step-brother. 949 F.2d at 106. The informer worked with the government to collect evidence of a federal crime, but after a month of surveillance the government still lacked any evidence of the defendant's use of interstate mail or wire facilities in connection with the murder-for-hire plot. Id. To create the needed jurisdictional hook, a government agent involved in the case drove from Maryland to Virginia for the sole purpose of making a telephone call to the defendant across state lines. Id. The defendant never traveled across state lines, and he never directed the government agent to travel across state lines. Id. The Fourth Circuit therefore concluded that the government could not prosecute the defendant for arranging a murder-for-hire through the use of interstate commerce facilities because the government had contrived jurisdiction based solely on the actions of its own agents. Id.

This case, however, is distinguishable from Coates. In this case, the jury was entitled to infer from the evidence the following facts: Steele commissioned Larry Fairfax to murder his wife, Cyndi Steele, by placing a pipe bomb under her car; Steele knew his wife would be travelling to see her mother in Oregon, and Steele intended that the pipe bomb would detonate during the course of Mrs. Steele's trip between Idaho and Oregon; when it did not, Steele insisted that Fairfax drive to Oregon to remove the bomb placed under the car because Steele feared it would be discovered during a planned mechanical service on the car; on May 28, 2010, Fairfax drove to Oregon at Steele's behest to facilitate Steele's scheme to kill Mrs. Steele. Jim Maher, Fairfax's cousin, corroborated the date and purpose of Fairfax's trip from Idaho to Oregon.

The pipe-bomb plan failing, Steele devised a new plan. Steele insisted that Fairfax make another trip to Oregon while Steele's wife was visiting her mother and kill Mrs. Steele in an apparent car accident or, if necessary, with a gun. Steele gave Fairfax $400 to defray the cost of the travel on June 11, 2010. By this time, Fairfax was working with the government, and this conversation between Fairfax and Steele was recorded. The government took the $400 Steele gave to Fairfax as evidence but allowed Fairfax to travel to Oregon to make it appear that Fairfax intended to carry out Steele's plot.

Based on each of these trips, a jury could have found beyond a reasonable doubt that Steele, with a murderous intent, caused Fairfax to travel across state lines. There is no evidence that the government "manufactured" jurisdiction as it did in Coates. To the contrary, the evidence showed that on more than one occasion, Steele directed Fairfax to cross state lines to facilitate Steele's plot to murder his wife, and Fairfax did travel across state lines.

Simply because Fairfax was working as a government agent when he travel to Oregon the second time does not bar Steele's conviction. See, e.g., U.S. v. Smith, 749 F.2d 1568, 1569 (11th Cir. 1985). Rather, analogous cases suggest that "a government agent or informer must unilaterally supply the interstate element of the offense at the government's behest -- e.g., when the agent goes out of state merely for the purpose of making the interstate call and creating the federal jurisdiction -- before federal jurisdiction will be deemed to have been improperly manufactured." Id. See also United States v. Bagnariol, 665 F.2d 877, 899 (9th Cir. 1981)(sustaining defendant's conviction by causing the use of an interstate facility based on a call from an FBI agent in Oregon to the defendant in Washington).

Steele also argues that the jurisdictional element did not exist because "the evidence was crystal clear that Mr. Fairfax did not have the intent that a 'murder be committed'" when he travel across state lines. Def's Reply at 2, Dkt. 308. But Fairfax's intent makes no difference because he was not charged under § 1958. It only matters that Steele -- not Fairfax -- had a murderous intent when he caused Fairfax to travel across state lines. U.S. v. Driggers, 559 F.3d at 1024 ("But the defendant must have intended that a murder be committed, and have caused the travel with this murderous intent.") . The jury found beyond a reasonable doubt that Steele had a murderous intent, and he caused Fairfax to travel across state lines to facilitate his scheme to kill his wife. Therefore, the jurisdictional elements for Counts I and II are satisfied, and Steele has no argument that Section 1958 as applied to him violates state sovereignty.

2.Erroneous Instruction

Steele next argues that the Court had no discretion to issue a supplemental instruction to the jury defining the term "cause" as used in 18 U.S.C. ยง 1958. By issuing the instruction, according to Steele, the Court watered down the standard of proof from ...

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