Prosecutors, defense attorneys spar over sentencing of deadly drivers

Douglas Chin
Douglas Chin
Sen. Sam Slom
Sen. Sam Slom
Joyce Somera
Joyce Somera

By Minna Sugimoto - bio | email

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Honolulu prosecutors on Wednesday unsuccessfully sought a 15-year prison term for the driver responsible for a deadly crash in Mokuleia four years ago. It was the latest in a string of sentencing disappointments for them and the families of crash victims.

We've seen it many times now -- a tearful plea by a person whose loved one was killed in a crash involving drunken driving and/or excessive speeding.

"I really wish you would think really hard on the sentence," Joyce Somera, victim's sister, told the judge at a sentencing Tuesday.

Often, a family's loss is compounded by a seemingly lenient sentence for the driver responsible.

Keanan Tantog killed a person and injured another, and received probation and a one-year jail term.

Tyler Duarte took two lives, and was sentenced to probation and 18 months in jail.

Billy Lamug -- who wasn't intoxicated but was excessively speeding -- killed two people and injured a third. He was sentenced to probation and community service.

"Each one of these families have lost somebody that they've loved forever," Douglas Chin, acting city prosecutor, said. "What's too bad is it seems like the court is more often taking into consideration what's happening for the defendant."

A judge sitting on a standard second-degree murder case has no discretion. It's a mandatory life sentence for that intentional killing.

But in a vehicular homicide, whether negligent or reckless, a judge has discretion and must consider several factors, including the defendant's criminal history. If there's no prior record, the driver will likely sidestep the maximum prison term -- even if alcohol was involved in the deadly crash.

"In these cases, a judge is faced with a situation where a good person is dead, but a good person's life now also hangs in the balance," Victor Bakke, defense attorney, said. "The judge's job is not revenge."

"The argument that they've never done it before, it's never happened, doesn't hold much water with me because the fact is they've done it now," Sen. Sam Slom, Senate Judiciary Committee member, said.

Slom says a decade ago, very few of these drivers went to jail at all. But since then, the laws have become tougher. In light of the recent sentences being handed down, he says the committee should revisit the issue next session.

"Should judges have that kind of discretion in a death case?" this reporter asked.

"I think they probably should, but there's always mitigating circumstances," Slom replied. "Again, I mean, you can separate out the poor, unfortunate tragic accidents from somebody who has made a willful choice to do something and that's caused a death. I think there should be a different standard for that type of incident."

Our request to interview a Circuit Court judge was declined Thursday.

"There are many cases of this nature pending before our courts and a judge's televised interview may compromise his or her ability to hear those cases," Marsha Kitagawa, state Judiciary spokesperson, said. "The sentencing guidelines are by statute. As always, the judge applies the facts and circumstances to the law before rendering his or her decision."

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