By Hans Sherrer
Special to the Las Vegas Tribune
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 of a convicted murderer in at least 21 years. Steese has claimed for more than 20 years he was in Idaho at the time of the crime.
Fred Steese was convicted on March 1, 1995 of first-degree murder with a deadly weapon and other charges related to 56-year-old Gerard Soules’ murder in North Las Vegas on the evening of June 3, 1992.
On June 6 the police identified Steese, 29, as a friend of Soules.
Steese was in Indiana on June 10 when the police talked with him on the phone. He said he lived with Soules until he left Las Vegas on June 4th or June 5th.
A friend suggested Steese return to Las Vegas. He was arrested on June 18 for speeding near Alamo, north of Las Vegas.
During his audio recorded interrogation by the North Las Vegas police, Steese described himself as a hobo who was hitchhiking in May when Soules picked him up. They developed a sexual relationship. After initially denying killing Soules, he 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. He said he stabbed the nude Soules “maybe 100” times, and he covered his face.
Steese said he took Soules’ television, VCR, and camera from the trailer and put them in Soules’ pickup and fled. He said the truck got stuck in a wash near Lake Mead, and 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 Idaho. After spending about a week in Idaho, he made his way to Elkhart, Indiana.
His confession included many details not released to the public.
Steese was charged with first-degree murder and other crimes.
Clark County Asst. DA 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).
Key prosecution evidence during Steese’s trial was his confession; the testimony of one of Soules’ neighbors who saw him with Soules on the night of June 3; and, the testimony of a jailhouse informant who said that Steese bragged about the murder.
Steese had recanted his confession. His alibi defense was that he was in Idaho at the time of Soules’ murder. Four witnesses testified they saw Steese in Idaho in early June 1992 — although they couldn’t identify the exact date: One witness said the person in Idaho identified himself as “Robert.” The State argued the witness may have actually seen Steese’s brother — Robert Steese, who lives in Texas.
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’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.”
Among other things the Court 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 claims of prosecutorial 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 and another in 2004, both of which were denied.
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 stating 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.
Steese appealed. In November 2010 the Nevada Supreme Court reversed Judge Cadish’s ruling and ordered 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. Evidence discovered the DA’s Office had written letters on behalf of the jailhouse informant after he testified; that on the Union Pacific Railroad, Police had caught Fred Burke — one of Steese’s aliases — on railroad property on May 29, 1992 in Salt Lake City and on May 31 in Cheyenne, Wyoming; and that Robert Steese had been in Texas on May 25, June 1, and June 4, 1992.
From June 2011 to January 2012 evidentiary hearings were held on three days.
At the end of a hearing on October 18, 2012, Judge Cadish ruled that based on Steese’s new evidence, “it’s more likely than not no reasonable juror would have found the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt with that evidence.” 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. A plea deal would ensure his release from prison — while if he went ahead with his habeas and lost, he could expect to die in prison.
Steese accepted a deal to plead guilty to second-degree murder with use of a deadly weapon. Based on the U.S. Supreme Court’s Alford decision, Steese protested his guilt, but admitted the prosecution had enough evidence to prove him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt to a jury. On December 12, 2012 Judge Cadish accepted Steese’s guilty plea and ordered a presentence report.
He was sentenced on February 13, 2013 to two consecutive eight-year sentences for both the second-degree murder, and for the use of a deadly weapon. He was given credit for 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 his guilty plea.
On June 10, 2015 Judge Cadish denied Steese’s motion. He did not appeal the ruling.
Steese’s last option was to seek a pardon.
A pardon in Nevada has no effect on a person’s criminal conviction. However, it restores 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.
The Clark County DA’s Office opposed Steese’s application.
Judge Cadish and Soules’ sister, Kathy Nasrey, supported his application.
During the Board’s hearing on November 8, 2017, it voted 8 to 1 to grant Steese a full and unconditional pardon. The Board members who voted affirmatively relied heavily on Judge Cadish’s 17-page “Order Regarding Actual Innocence” filed in January 2013.
Although Steese remains a felon, the pardon restores his civil rights to vote; serve on a jury; hold elective office; and, own or possess a firearm.
The lone no vote was by Attorney General Adam Laxalt, who is running for governor. He expressed confidence in DA Steve Wolfson’s judgment that a pardon for Steese was absolutely unwarranted.
Steese, now 54, is currently working as a long-haul truck driver.
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Hans Sherrer is President of the Justice Institute aka Justice Denied that conducted a post-conviction investigation of Kirstin Lobato’s case. The Justice Institute is based in Seattle, Washington and promotes awareness of wrongful convictions, and maintains the world’s largest database of exonerated persons. Its website is, www.justicedenied.org.