Ten years ago, a 21-year-old woman named Tonya Hart was shot to death in a Moscow, Idaho trailer court. Two years later, a local man named David J. Meisner, who confessed to the crime during a recorded police interrogation, was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. Last month, the Idaho State Supreme Court ruled that trial judge John Stegner committed a reversible error when he refused to allow the defense to present evidence that someone else might have pulled the trigger on the gun used to kill Miss Hart.
A new trial for Meisner is currently underway in Moscow. The prosecution has finished presenting evidence, and the defense is expected to take at least two weeks presenting its case. The first witness summoned to testify on Meisner’s behalf is Dr. Richard Ofshe, an emeritus professor at the University of California-Berkley, a nationally respected expert in the field of false confessions.
The taped confession is the central piece of evidence against Meisner in what the prosecution characterizes as a case of “murder for hire.”
Hart’s ex-boyfriend, Jesse Linderman, supposedly offered to pay Meisner $1,000 to murder the young woman, with a $100 bonus if the killing took place before Christmas. The charges against Linderman were dropped for a lack of evidence. As the state supreme court noted, the only evidence tying Linderman to the crime was Meisner’s disputed confession.
During the trial, Judge Stegner refused to permit the defense to present evidence that a man named Lane Thomas, who had repeatedly confessed to the murder, was the individual who had shot Miss Hart. Stegner didn’t explain why Meisner’s confession was uniquely credible. The Idaho Supreme Court ruled that by granting the prosecution’s motion to exclude Thomas’s confessions, Judge Stegner had violated Meisner’s right to present a defense, as protected by the Sixth Amendment.
In this “murder for hire” case, the supposed triggerman was convicted on the basis of a confession that was considered inadequate to establish the guilt of the alleged instigator of the plot. However, in the new trial the defense will have be permitted adequate time to present its case; this includes testimony from expert witnesses like Dr. Ofshe.
The Tonya Hart murder case is practically a photographic negative of another high-profile murder for hire case from northern Idaho: The supposed plot by attorney Edgar Steele to hire a handyman named Larry Fairfax to murder his wife Cyndi by planting a pipe bomb on her SUV.
In the latter case, however, the confessed bomber, who acted as a “cooperating informant” with the FBI, was sentenced to a mere 27 months in what amounts to a halfway house for possession of an unregistered firearm. Mr. Steele, a 66-year-old man who has survived prostate cancer and a nearly fatal coronary aneurysm, was sentenced on November 9 to 50 years in federal prison. While Meisner wasn’t permitted to mount a defense in his original trial, the re-trial offers him a chance to exercise that right. Steele will most likely die in prison before he is afforded a similar opportunity.
Edgar Steele, who describes himself as the “attorney to the damned,” has made a career out of defending reviled clients, such as the Aryan Nation. His political views and professional associations have made him a widely reviled figure — but they do nothing to establish his guilt. The same is true of the supposition-rich and substance-poor case presented against him in court.
The prosecution’s case against Steele depended entirely on two mutually dependent pieces of defective evidence. The first was the accusation of the confessed bomber, Fairfax, who was accused by Steele and his family of stealing a large quantity of silver and then framing the controversial lawyer in order to conceal his crime. The second piece of evidence was a third-generation copy of a digital recording made by the FBI of a conversation in which Steele and Fairfax supposedly discussed the plan to kill Cyndi.
Fairfax’s guilt is demonstrated by a huge volume of physical evidence, including the defective pipe bomb whose existence he concealed from the FBI until it was discovered on the undercarriage of Cyndi’s vehicle during an oil change. Absent the recorded conversation between Fairfax and Steele on June 9, 2010, the murder for hire case against Steele would disintegrate.
Prior to the trial, the FBI recording was examined by Dr. George Papcun, a forensic scientist who has advised numerous law enforcement and intelligence agencies. Dr. Papcun discerned hundreds of “transients” and other anomalies in the pre-trial version of the FBI recording. He concluded that there was “a reasonable degree of scientific probability that [the recordings] do not represent a true and valid representation of reality and they are unreliable.”
|Winmill (l.), seen here, appropriately, with a Soviet-era Russian Judge.|
This expert assessment would have been devastating to the prosecution. This is probably why Judge Winmill, during Steele’s Sovietesque trial in federal court last May,exerted himself to prevent it from being shared with the jury.
At the time of the trial, Dr. Papcun was vacationing in Bora Bora. On May 2, Winmill ruled that Papcun would be permitted to offer testimony by way of a video teleconference at a U.S. Consulate the following day.
That ruling caused Traci Whelan, the federal commissarina presiding over the prosecution, to stomp off into a corner, stick out her lower lip, and began to sniffle. Winmill – who either believes in mystical bilocation, or (more likely) subscribes to a totalitarian view of the law — reversed himself, ruling that Papcun had to be present in the Boise courtroom no later than 8:30 a.m. on May 4.
This wasn’t the end of Winmill’s corrupt solicitude for the prosecution. The Judge also permitted Whelan and her comrades to present the videotaped and translated testimony of a Ukrainian woman named Tatyana Loginova, who claimed that Steele was conducting an online affair with her. Steele maintained that his online conversations with Loginova – who advertised herself as a mail-order bride — were research for a book about international sex trafficking. Implausible though that account might seem to some people, it was validated by Steele’s friends and family – including his wife Cyndi, who has loudly and consistently protested that her husband is innocent.
|Lying by headline: The “victim” is alive, and supports her husband.|
Cyndi’s role – indeed, her very presence – underscores the most critical contrast with the Tonya Hart murder. In the Edgar Steele case, the “victim” is alive and well. Indeed, there is no victim, at least as that term was used by the prosecution.
“We have a great marriage,” Cyndi Steele told Winmill during the sentencing hearing. “I am not a victim of my husband because my husband did nothing wrong. I am a victim of the government.”
When it was announced that Edgar Steele’s murder-for-hire trial in Boise would be heard by Judge Winmill, informed court-watchers in Idaho knew that the proceedings would be a show trial – a spectacle scripted by Franz Kafka and directed by Andrei Vyshinsky. Lynn Winmill’s courtroom is where justice goes to die. The family of the late Verl Jones, who owned a family ranch near the Montana border, can testify that his description is untainted by hyperbole.
For many years, Judge Winmill has been a stalwart ally of the Western Watersheds Project (WWP), a foundation-funded radical environmental group that has played a key role in the eco-Jihad against property rights in Idaho. WWP has filed several lawsuits intended to shut down human use of lands that – in defiance of the Constitution – are owned and controlled by the federal government.
Writing in the Spring 2008 issue of Range magazine, State Representative Judy Boyle described Winmill as the “WWP’s sugar daddy who very seldom rules against them, often incorporating pieces of WWP’s briefs to justify his decisions.” In fact, when the WWP files a claim under the Endangered Species Act, Winmill generally won’t even require the group to present evidence before ruling in its favor.
This was what happened in the case of Mr. Jones, who was sued by WWP in 2001 over an irrigation ditch he had dug forty years earlier. Exercising his federally recognized right to use water from Otter Creek, Jones dug the ditch on his own property to grow hay. The WWP claimed that the diversion of water harmed the endangered bull trout, despite the fact that none existed in Otter Creek. Without requiring the WWP to show evidence to support its claims, Winmill ordered Jones to stop irrigating his hay fields, and to pay the WWP’s legal fees.
|“I’m a victim of the government”: Cyndi Steele.|
The requirements imposed by Winmill on the 85-year-old Jones were akin to Pharaoh’s spiteful order that the Hebrew slaves be required to make bricks without straw.
The loss of Jones’s hay crop threw the ranch into a fatal economic tailspin. Unmoved by the rancher’s plight, Winmill ordered him to provide the WWP with a list of all his assets, which the eco-radical group sold in order to pay its court costs. The stress and frustration literally killed the elderly rancher.
Seattle-based litigator Russell Brooks of the Pacific Legal Foundation took the case before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which overturned Winmill’s decision.
“The 9th Circuit judges ruled that actual evidence of a species being harmed must be presented, not just alleged, before a judge can legally order an injunction,” recalls Rep. Boyle – a principle that Winmill is intelligent enough to understand, but sufficiently corrupt and arrogant to ignore.
Winmill’s behavior in the Edgar Steele case was of a piece with his treatment of Verl Jones, and any honest federal appellate court — a species last seen keeping company with the unicorn — would overturn the conviction and order a new trial. It’s quite reasonable to suspect that Winmill, a recidivist persecutor of sick, powerless, elderly defendants, has cynically calculated that Steele, like Jones, will expire before being granted an actual trial.
The next issue of Republic magazine — for which I serve as managing editor — will have a detailed cover story examining the Edgar Steele case.
Grateful as I am for the Republic gig, I’m compelled to point out that it doesn’t offer an extravagant paycheck — so your help in supporting Pro Libertate is still desperately needed and emphatically appreciated!
Dum spiro, pugno!