Heather Mack attorney barred from practicing law in Northern Illinois

By Bill Dwyer For Chronicle Media

Metropolitan Correctional Center in downtown Chicago. (Photo courtesy of the Federal Bureau of Prisons)

For the second time in five years, a lawyer representing accused killer Heather Mack has been suspended from the practice of law.

Veteran defense attorney Jeffrey Steinback, who was retained by Mack last November, was ordered barred from the practice of law within the federal Northern District of Illinois by a decision of that district’s executive Committee on Sept. 20.

Under the order, signed by Chief Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer, Steinback was “suspended from the practice of law in the Northern District of Illinois unless co-counsel, who has filed an appearance on the case, is present and/or signs all pleadings until further order of the court.”

Mack’s second defense attorney, Michael Leonard, who has no formal business relation with Steinback, continues to represent her interests in the criminal case. Leonard initially filed his appearance before the court in December, at which time he indicated he was lead counsel. In a subsequent filing in May, Leonard indicated he was not the lead counsel, but would act as the trial attorney if the case went to trial.

Steinback’s troubles date back to a 2020 criminal case in the Northern District of Iowa before judge C.J. Williams, in which Steinback was representing a Chicago man, Romel Murphy.

Citing a variety of medical reasons, Steinback filed a total of five motions for continuances. He also filed two motions to reschedule Murphy’s sentencing hearing, including one on the day of the hearing last October. On both occasions, Murphy made the four-hour long drive from Chicago to Iowa for sentencing, only to find that Steinback had not shown up.

After Steinback missed the second sentencing hearing, Judge Williams ordered Steinback to produce documentation showing, among other things, that he had in fact been medically treated for back spasms. After a series of delays, Steinback produced a note from his doctor stating, “Patient reports missing a work appointment on, 9/24/21, due to back spasms,” but no records officially documenting any emergency room or urgent care visit.

In May, Steinback filed a response with Judge Williams, acknowledging that, “Aspects of my response to some of your Honor’s inquiries were likewise either misleading, or at best, confusing …”

Judge Williams was having none of it. On June 6, he found Steinback guilty of contempt of court. He said Steinback failed to “produce medical records showing he was treated for back spasms on Sept. 24, 2021, because that was a lie from the beginning.”

“The fact that Steinback has produced no records, no witness, no evidence whatsoever to support his evolving story of treatment for his alleged back spasms on Sept. 24, 2021, leads the court to the inescapable conclusion that he never went to see anyone that day about his back spasms, even assuming he had them.”

Williams also said Steinback failed to produce demanded text messages addressed to Murphy regarding rescheduling his court hearings because they would not support Steinback’s claims.

“Again, the conclusion the court reaches is that there was information in the text messages that was not favorable to Steinback and he would rather incur the court’s wrath for not producing them than to produce them and let the court know what they contain.”

The judge also castigated Steinback for “repeatedly fil(ing) motions to continue hearings at the last minute for what the Court now finds to be under frivolous or false pretenses …”  Such behavior, Williams said, “disrupts the Court’s schedule. Because these continuances occurred at the last minute, it prevented the Court from hearing other parties’ disputes in their place.”

Williams said Steinback, also ignored “repeated phone calls and emails from the United States Probation Officer,” seeking his response to the prosecution’s sentencing memo. “United States Probation Officers are extensions of the Court and snubbing a probation officer is the same as snubbing a federal judge,” he wrote.

Under the local rules of the Northern District of Illinois, Steinback faced identical sanctions to those imposed by the Iowa judge. The Illinois Northern District’s Executive Committee issued a citation to Steinback, giving him 14 days to respond, “stating why the imposition of discipline by this Court, identical to that imposed by the United States District Court for the Northern District of Iowa, would be unwarranted and the reasons therefore.”

Steinback’s alleged misconduct clearly did not sit well Judge Charles Norgle, who is presiding over Mack’s criminal case. During a status hearing on June 29, an indignant Norgle took Steinback publicly to task, demanding he read the Iowa judge’s contempt ruling aloud in court.

Steinback is the second Mack defense attorney to run afoul of the judicial system. In September 2017, the Illinois Supreme Court ordered Michael David Elkin’s law license suspended “for a year and until further order of the court,” after he was found to have failed to properly discharge his responsibilities to three clients and failing to return unearned legal fees.

Elkin had sought reinstatement to the bar since December 2019, but the suspension remained in force until his license was re-instated last March.

Elkin was the first lawyer Heather Mack contacted in the hours after the murder of her mother on Aug. 12, 2014 in Bali, Indonesia. The Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission noted that Elkin “traveled to Indonesia for two weeks, became obsessed with the case, and remained involved in it after returning home, to the detriment of his other work.”