BOISE - A jury of 11 women and one man will begin hearing testimony today in a federal courtroom in Boise in the case of a 65-year-old Sandpoint-area attorney who allegedly hired a handyman to kill his longtime wife, Cyndi Steele, in a car-bomb plot.
About 60 prospective jurors on Tuesday were called into U.S. District Court for this trial. Two alternates were chosen during the day, both of whom also are women. Open statements from federal prosecutors and Edgar J. Steele's defense team get under way first thing today.
Along with murder-for-hire, Steele is facing charges of possession of a destructive device in relation to a crime of violence, use of explosive material in the commission of a federal felony, and tampering with a victim.
Murder-for-hire carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison, according to court documents.
The explosive materials count provides an additional 10-year sentence to any underlying sentence. And possession of a destructive device in relation to a crime of violence carries a mandatory minimum of 30 years in addition to the sentence for the underlying violent crime.
Steele's wife, Cyndi Steele, sat in the front row of the gallery during the second half of Tuesday's proceedings. She believes her husband is innocent and has stood by his side, attending many of the previous court hearings in support of him. She declined comment Tuesday as she left.
The witness tampering charge stems from Edgar Steele's phone calls from Kootenai County jail to his wife allegedly attempting to convince her of his innocence and instructing her on how to speak with the FBI. Federal prosecutors played recordings of those phone calls in open court in Coeur d'Alene.
Hitman-turned-informant Larry Fairfax helped federal agents get audio recordings of Steele allegedly ordering the hit on his wife and mother-in-law, who lives in Oregon. Fairfax wore a hidden recording device in conversations with Steele. Those recordings, however, have yet to be played in public.
Fairfax will be sentenced after Steele's trial after he pleaded guilty to building and then placing a pipe bomb under Cyndi Steele's SUV. It was discovered before it had gone off during an oil change in Coeur d'Alene. Fairfax said Steele paid him. Cyndi Steele has said Fairfax's story was made up to cover up a theft from the Steeles.
The prospective jurors were asked whether anyone had connections to groups that believe in racial superiority, though no one raised their hands. The jurors also were asked if they were connected at all to groups who opposed such racist groups, but again no one had such links. Steele was an attorney for the Aryan Nations.
U.S. District Court Judge B. Lynn Winmill did most of the questioning of the prospective jurors, but did provide an allotted amount of time to Assistant U.S. Attorney Traci J. Whelan and defense attorney Robert T. McAllister.
McAllister reminded jurors that prosecutors have the burden of proof, while Whelan explained that what they were about to see was a real-life trial, warning them not to expect what's seen on police and court dramas on TV.
One juror got more attention that any other. He was a forensic psychologist, but he was ultimately excused. A retired law enforcement officer, who also was thoroughly questioned, was ultimately excused. Both men said they could set aside their professional experience and help render a verdict based entirely on testimony, expert opinion and evidence presented inside the courtroom.
"I understand the concept, and I would do that," the forensic psychologist told Winmill.
Proceedings begin at 8:30 a.m. The trial could last up to two weeks, but is likely to be shorter.