Nov 11

Fred Steese Pardoned For 1992 Murder In North Las Vegas

Frederick Lee Steese was granted a full and unconditional pardon on November 8, 2017 by an 8 to 1 vote of the Nevada Board of Pardons Commissioners. It was their first pardon in at least 21 years of a convicted murderer.

Fred Steese (Lisa Rasmussen)

Fred Steese (Lisa Rasmussen)

Fred Steese was convicted on March 1, 1995 of first-degree murder with a deadly weapon, robbery, burglary, and grand larceny auto related to the murder of Gerard Soules in North Las Vegas on the evening of June 3, 1992. The 56-year-old Soules had been repeatedly stabbed, and his trailer had been ransacked and items stolen.

On June 6 the police identified Steese was a friend of Soules.

On June 10 the police obtained a phone number in Indiana where Steese could be reached. Steese told the police he had been living in Las Vegas with Soules until he left on June 4 or June 5. He said they were on friendly terms. Steese was told that Soules had been murdered.

Immediately after talking to the police Steese called his friend Rick Rock and told him Soules had been stabbed more than 100 times. Rock suggested Steese return to Las Vegas to “straighten this out.”

Steese was arrested on June 18 for speeding near Alamo — 95 miles north of Las Vegas.

The 29-year-old Steese was taken into custody that day by the North Las Vegas police. During his audio recorded interrogation Steese waived his Miranda rights to remain silent and to consult with a lawyer. He described himself as a hobo who was hitchhiking in May when Soules picked him up, and they developed a sexual relationship. After initially denying killing Soules, he soon admitted it in a very detailed taped confession. He said he intended to rob Soules while he was asleep, but he awoke and was killed during the ensuing fight. When asked how many times he stabbed Soules, Steese replied: “I don’t know. Maybe 100.” He said Soules was nude and after killing him he covered his face.

Steese said he took Soules’ television, VCR, and camera from the trailer and put them into Soules’ pickup and fled. He said after the stolen truck got stuck in a wash near Lake Mead, he unsuccessfully used dog cages to try and free it. He then hitchhiked back to Las Vegas, and jumped a train to Cheyenne, Wyoming. He left when he met a man who invited him to stay with his grandparents in New Plymouth, Idaho. After spending about a week in Idaho, he made his way to Elkhart, Indiana where he called Rock, who provided his phone number to the police.

Among the many details in his confession not released to the public were the number of times Soules was stabbed; that he was nude and his face was covered; that his TV, VCR and camera had been stolen; that his truck had gotten stuck near Lake Mead; and dog cages were used to try and free the truck.

Based on his confession Steese was charged with first-degree murder and other crimes.

Clark County Asst. District Attorney William Kephart was assigned as the prosecutor in Steese’s case, and prior to trial he was joined by Doug Herndon (both are now Clark County District Court judges).

In October 1992 Steese filed a motion to dismiss based on the alleged misconduct by the prosecutor of attempting to dissuade a defense witness from testifying during Steese trial. The motion was denied.

Steese filed a motion to suppress his confession as involuntary on the basis of the circumstances of his questioning and a “psychiatrist’s report which stated that he was of low-normal intelligence and that he suffered from schizoid personality disorder.” The prosecution introduced evidence by the interrogating officers that he didn’t exhibit signs of intoxication or drug withdrawal, there were regular breaks during Steese’s interrogation, he didn’t express weariness, and he was provided with coffee, cigarettes, and snacks from a vending machine. Steese’s motion was denied.

Key prosecution evidence during Steese’s trial was his confession; the testimony of one of Soules’ neighbors that he saw him with Soules on the night of June 3; and, the testimony of a jailhouse informant that Steese bragged about the murder (the informant denied receiving anything in exchange for testifying).

Steese’s alibi defense during his trial was he was in Idaho at the time of Soules’ murder. Four witnesses ultimately testified they saw Steese in Idaho in early June 1992 — although they couldn’t identify the exact date: One initially testified he wasn’t there, but the next day changed his testimony, and another said the person in Idaho identified himself as “Robert.” The State argued the witness may have actually seen Steese’s brother — Robert Steese.

Steese also introduced documents to prove he was in Idaho at the time of the murder. They included employment and social services applications — however, they contained errors that included the misspelling of Steese’s name. The prosecution challenged the authenticity of the documents, and they consulted handwriting experts who testified they were likely forged.

Steese testified that after he left Las Vegas on the train he was thrown off by railroad security, after they asked for his name and wrote it down.

After the jury convicted Steese of all charges, he agreed to a sentence of two consecutive terms of life in prison without the possibility of parole in exchange for the prosecution not seeking the death penalty for his murder conviction. He was sentenced to an additional 50 years in prison for his other convictions.

Steese filed several motions for a new trial based on allegations of prosecutorial misconduct that included intimidation of defense witnesses and suppression of evidence. The motions were denied.

Steese’s appeal of his conviction and sentence was denied in May 1998 by the Nevada Supreme Court. The Court ruled the “State’s case against Steese was strong.”

Steese claimed in his appeal the prosecution failed to disclose phone records of when he was in Nampa, Idaho. The Supreme Court rejected his claim by noting the records would not have helped his defense because they only establish he was there two days after Soules’ murder — which was corroborated by an Affidavit by his Steese’s friend Rock. The Court also ruled that since Steese knew of the phone calls his defense team could have independently obtained the phone records.

The Supreme Court also rejected Steese’ claim that Rock had been dissuaded by the prosecution from speaking with Steese’s attorney — who he had in fact talked with, and that the prosecution had “somehow persuaded two witnesses … to alter their testimony on the eve of trial.”

The Court also rejected Steese’s claim his confession was uncorroborated — noting that it was consistent with the facts of the crime and included many details that hadn’t been publicly disclosed.

The Court also rejected Steese’s claim that the eyewitness identification of him was invalid — ruling that it was up to the jury to decide on the witnesses credibility and Steese had the opportunity to cross-examine him.

The Court also rejected Steese’s numerous claims of prosecutor misconduct against Kephart and Herndon in ruling, “we conclude that the activity at issue here did not go beyond the bounds of necessary pretrial investigation and preparation.”

Steese filed a habeas corpus petition in 1999 that asserted numerous claims including ineffective assistance of his trial lawyers. The State opposed his petition. The judge declined to appoint him a lawyer, and denied the petition without holding a hearing.

Steese appealed. In January 2003 the Nevada Supreme Court affirmed the denial of all but one of his claims: that he wasn’t properly informed about the terms of his sentencing stipulation.

After holding an evidentiary hearing District Court Judge Lee Gates ruled in September 2003 the only sentencing offer made to Steese was the one he accepted, and so his habeas claim was denied.

In 2004 Steese filed another habeas petition based on claims that were in his 1999 petition. Judge Gates denied the petition in May 2004 on the basis it was time barred, a second petition, and its claims had previously been denied.

The Nevada Supreme Court denied Steese’s appeal of Judge Gates’ order in November 2004.

Steese filed a third habeas petition in April 2009. To overcome procedural hurdles preventing his petition from being considered, it included new evidence supporting his actual innocence: A December 2008 Affidavit by his brother Robert Steese stated he had never been in Idaho and had never met the alibi witnesses.

In June 2009 Judge Elissa Cadish denied Steese’s petition without holding an evidentiary hearing on the basis there was no good reason why Steese couldn’t have presented his new evidence sooner, and he hadn’t shown there was any violation of his constitutional rights by the prosecution.

Steese appealed. In November 2010 the Nevada Supreme Court reversed Judge Cadish’s ruling and ordered an evidentiary hearing, stating: “Here, appellant’s petition raises several claims of constitutional error, and he presents new evidence that, if reliable, may erode confidence in the trial’s outcome. Appellant is therefore entitled to an evidentiary hearing on his actual-innocence claims.”

Judge Cadish granted the request of Steese’s lawyers that the DA’s Office turn over its case documents. They included letters the DA’s Office had written on behalf of the jailhouse informant — which suggested he didn’t truthfully testify he wasn’t receiving anything for his testimony against Steese. It was also discovered the prosecutors had two Union Pacific Railroad Police reports for a person named Fred Lee Burke, Jr. who was caught illegally on a train or in the railroad yard in Cheyenne, Wyoming on May 31, 1992, and one for Frederick Lee Burke on May 29 in Salt Lake City. Fred Burke was a known alias used by Steese. A National Crime Information Center report was also discovered showing that Robert Steese’s name had been run through the system in Texas on May 25, June 1, and June 4, 1992 — which suggested he had been stopped or otherwise questioned by police on those days.

From June 2011 to January 2012 evidentiary hearings were on three days. During the first hearing Robert Steese and five other witnesses testified he was in Texas the first week in June 1992, and he didn’t hobo on trains.

During a hearing on October 18, 2012 related to Steese’s actual innocence claim, his attorney argued he “could not have committed the crime because he was in another state when the murder happened.” At the end of the hearing Judge Cadish ruled that based on Steese’s new evidence, “it’s more likely than not no reasonable juror would have found the Deft. guilty beyond a reasonable doubt with that evidence.”[1] That ruling allowed Cadish to consider Steese’s habeas petition.

The DA’s Office and Steese’s lawyers then entered into negotiations for a possible plea agreement. The advantage for Steese to make a deal is it would ensure his release from prison — while if he went ahead with his habeas and lost he could expect to die in prison.

On December 12, 2012 an Amended Information, Guilty Plea Agreement, & Memorandum of Agreement Regarding Plea and Stipulated Sentence was filed in open court. Steese was present and arraigned. He pled guilty to second-degree murder with use of a deadly weapon pursuant to the U. S. Supreme Court’s Alford decision. Under Alford a defendant protests his guilt, but admits the government has enough evidence to prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt to a judge or jury. Judge Cadish accepted Steese’s guilty plea and ordered a pre-sentence report.

Steese was sentenced on February 13, 2013 to consecutive eight-year sentences for second-degree murder, and for the use of a deadly weapon. He was given credit for time served of 7,545 days in Department of Corrections custody. He was released because he had been imprisoned for more than the 16 years of his new sentence.

Steese had buyer’s remorse. Exactly a year after his sentencing he filed a Motion To Withdraw Guilty Plea.

On June 10, 2015 Judge Cadish denied Steese’s motion. She ruled that the Nevada Supreme Court case Steese cited in support of his motion — Harris v. State (2014) — undermined his argument because under that ruling he could only challenge his guilty plea in a habeas corpus petition. Steese was ineligible to do so because he had completed serving his sentence, and a habeas petition can only be filed by a person in custody. Steese did not appeal Cadish’s ruling.

Unable to challenge his legal status as a convicted murderer, Steese last option was to attempt to regain his civil rights through an executive pardon.

Nevada’s pardon law does not include any provision for the granting of a pardon based on actual innocence.

A pardon in Nevada has no effect on a person’s criminal conviction, or its effect on their inability to secure employment in many professions, or to travel to countries that bar the entry of felons — which includes Canada. A Nevada pardon is helpful by restoring a convicted person’s civil rights, which can include the right to own and possess a firearm.

Steese filed an application with the Nevada Board of Pardons Commissioners for a Conditional Pardon without the right to bear arms. The BPC has nine members: the seven Nevada Supreme Court justices, the governor, and the attorney general.

Parole and Probation Chief Natalie Wood recommended granting Steese a Conditional Pardon without the right to bear arms.

The Clark County DA’s Office opposed Steese’s application.

During the Commissioners’ hearing on November 8, 2017, the Board voted 8 to 1 to grant Steese a full and unconditional pardon. Although Steese remains a felon, the pardon restores his civil rights to:
1) Vote.
2) Serve on a jury.
3) Hold elective office.
4) Own or possess a firearm. (Felons with a pardon restoring their gun rights are exempt by federal law from prosecution for being a felon in possession of a firearm.)

The lone no vote was by Attorney General Adam Laxalt, who is running for governor. Laxalt told the Las Vegas Review-Journal he relied on a report from the Clark County District Attorney’s Office: “The district attorney, Steve Wolfson, felt that this pardon was absolutely unwarranted.” Laxalt added that he reviewed the DA’s file on Steese and knew his criminal history of felony charges in multiple states: “I was frankly stunned that the board voted, prior to me, unanimously to pardon. I just wasn’t sure if I was missing something that was not in the file.”

Judge Cadish and Soules’s sister, Kathy Nasrey, supported Steese’s pardon application.

Steese is 54 and currently working as a long-haul truck driver. After the hearing he told the Review-Journal “I make pretty good money right now.” He said he sleeps in the truck to save money to buy his own rig and get his teeth fixed.

Steese is on his own. He cannot pursue compensation through a federal civil rights lawsuit because he remains convicted of Soules’ murder.

Endnote:
[1] Judge Cadish’s 18-page written Order Regarding Actual Innocence was filed on January 9, 2013.

November 12, 2017
By Hans Sherrer
Justice Denied

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