United States v. Steele

Summarized by:

  • Court: 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Archives
  • Area(s) of Law: Criminal Law
  • Date Filed: 10-24-2013
  • Case #: 12-30005
  • Judge(s)/Court Below: Circuit Judge Christen for the Court; Circuit Judges Pregerson and Murguia
  • Full Text Opinion

Upon exercise of its factual cost-benefit determination, the district court does not abuse its discretion by deferring consideration of a defendant’s ineffective assistance claim to collateral review.

After criminal defense attorney Edgar Steele’s plan to hire a man to kill his wife and mother-in-law backfired, the jury convicted Steele of murder-for-hire and victim tampering. During Steele’s trial, his defense counsel failed to subpoena their sole expert witness who was to discredit the soundness of a recorded conversation between Steele and the man he hired to carry out the murders. After conviction, Steele’s attorney pled guilty to using over $100,000 of another client’s funds for personal use and was sentenced on conspiracy and bankruptcy fraud charges. The issue before the Ninth Circuit was at what point a trial court “should determine the merits of an ineffective assistance of counsel claim presented in a pre-judgment motion for a new trial.” Pursuant to United States v. Ross, this claim is appropriately raised during habeas corpus proceedings, not on direct appeal. For review on appeal, the defendant must show representation was “so inadequate that it obviously [denied him] his Sixth Amendment right to counsel.” Lacking precedent in this Circuit for a standard, the panel adopted the Second Circuit’s view that “when a claim of ineffective assistance… is first raised… prior to the judgment of conviction, the district court may… consider the claim at that point in the proceeding.” Risking disruption of the flow of pre-judgment proceedings to address ineffective assistance claims is a factual determination for the court, whose decision is subject only to abuse of discretion review. Here, the panel upheld the lower court’s refusal to consider Steele’s claim. The evidentiary record for the court to consider was deficient in light of how broadly worded Steele’s motion was. Postponing consideration of Steele’s claim to collateral review, once a complete record is available, was not an abuse of the court’s discretion. AFFIRMED.

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