(CN) - A criminal defense attorney who hatched an unsuccessful murder-for-hire plot to kill his wife and mother-in-law cannot have a new trial, the 9th Circuit ruled Thursday.
Edgar Steele, 67, is currently serving 50 years in federal prison after a Pocatella, Idaho, jury convicted him in 2011. Over a decade before he tried to kill his wife and mother-in-law, Steele had defended Richard Butler, leader of the Aryan Nations, against charges of harassment and assault.
The FBI learned about Steele's plot from an unusual source - the handyman-turned-hitman he had hired, Larry Fairfax.
Fairfax had planted a pipe bomb on the car Steele's wife drove in May 2010. When the bomb fell off, however, Steele threatened to hire a second hitman to kill Fairfax if he refused to try again.
Fairfax instead went to the FBI where agents convinced him to wear a wire. He later recorded Steele discussing plans for a second attempt on his wife.
On the day the murder was set to go down, "law enforcement officials came to Steele's home and falsely informed him that his wife was dead so they could measure his reaction," according to ruling.
They arrested him after revealing that his wife was actually alive and well. Steele denied the charges and claimed that the recordings had been fabricated.
Authorities then caught Steele instructing his wife over a recorded prison phone call to testify that it was not his voice on Fairfax's recordings.
Steele faced additional charges of witness tampering, but Steele's wife testified to as he instructed.
Steele and his trial attorney, Robert McAllister, needed someone to testify that the tapes could have been fabricated, but McAllister allegedly neglected to send out a subpoena and their expert was on vacation in Bora Bora when they needed him.
Shortly after Steele's conviction, McAllister admitted to stealing $100,000 from a different client, and he later pleaded guilty to bankruptcy fraud. This inspired Steele, with a new attorney, to move for a new trial based on ineffective assistance of counsel.
U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill refused to consider the motion, and the 9th Circuit unanimously affirmed on Thursday, finding Steele's claims premature.
"Although consideration of a pre-judgment ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claim is appropriate in some cases, here the district court did not err by deferring consideration of Steele's ineffective assistance claim to collateral review, when a complete record would be available," Judge Morgan Christen wrote for a three-judge panel in Portland, Ore.
The appellate panel further noted that, according to the trial record, McAllister's failure to subpoena the expert was not an error but a "conscious decision."
"Moreover," Winmill wrote, "the district court, alert to issues of ineffectiveness following Steele's counsel's subsequent legal troubles, expressed on the record that, with respect to ethical lapses, 'certainly nothing that occurred in the courtroom gave me any pause or concern in that regard.'"
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