ROCKLAND, Maine — A 71-year-old man serving a life sentence for the 1985 beating death of a Wells gift store owner will have a judge hear his request for a review of his conviction.
Justice William Anderson on Jan. 25 in Knox County Superior Court granted Richard Steeves a hearing after ruling that the inmate had met the requirement under state law for a post-conviction review by the court on his claim of ineffective counsel.
No date has been set, although motions must be filed 45 days from when Steeves is appointed an attorney.
Anderson made no ruling on Steeves’ claim that blood-stained boots of an alternate suspect seized by detectives were improperly barred from being presented at Steeves’ January 1987 trial held in Knox County Superior Court in Rockland. The case, which had originated in York County, was moved to Knox County because of extensive pretrial publicity.
Steeves has argued that a DNA analysis of the boots would have vindicated him.
While not addressing that issue, Justice Anderson said a U.S. Supreme Court decision last year — Lafler vs. Cooper — could allow Steeves the right to argue ineffective counsel even after the deadline to file such an appeal, which is within a year of the conviction.
In the Supreme Court case, the high court ruled that the right to effective counsel extends not just to a fair trial but to the matter of plea negotiations.
Steeves argues that his defense attorney wrongfully intimidated him to not take a 40-year prison sentence offered by the state prior to the trial. After being convicted, Justice G. Arthur Brennan sentenced Steeves to a life term for the murder of Russell Bailey of Wells.
News articles written at the time of the trial reported that defense attorney Ricky Brunette told the jury in opening statements at Steeves’ trial that another man committed the murder and that this person forced Steeves to write a note and leave it in on Bailey’s body. The note read: “You will never touch my daughter again.”
The 1987 trial also garnered headlines because Steeves had been interviewed by Robert Hohler, a columnist from the Concord [N.H.] Monitor. Steeves implicated himself in the interview. Hohler was ordered to testify but refused, citing First Amendment rights.
The prosecutors in the case were then Assistant Attorneys General Thomas Goodwin and Michael Westcott. Goodwin told the jury that Steeves story of being forced to watch the murder was false and that there was overwhelming evidence of the defendant’s guilt.
Steeves also was implicated in other deaths in Maine, New Hampshire and Ohio. He was tried in 1967 in connection with a murder in New Hampshire but was found not guilty by reason of insanity. He also was found not guilty by reason of insanity on two murder charges in Ohio. Steeves was indicted in 1966 in connection with the August 1965 murder of Lorenzo Trayor in Augusta. That indictment was dismissed in 1978 by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court because of the state’s delay in prosecuting Steeves.