HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Three days of sentencing arguments in a human trafficking case in Honolulu are now moot, as the owners of Aloun Farms took back their guilty pleas Thursday.
"This has been one of the longest sentencing hearings in anyone's recent memory," Clare Hanusz, attorney representing farmers from Thailand, said.
At Thursday's hearing, Mike and Alec Sou could have received up to five years in federal prison. Instead, they received a trial date.
The defendants demanded a trial after a judge refused to accept the plea deal they made with prosecutors.
The owners of Aloun Farms arrived at US District Court in Honolulu for sentencing. But once upstairs, everything would change.
"There has been a lot of waffling," Hanusz said. "I think that, while we're disappointed in what happened today, it's really not all that surprising."
Brothers Mike and Alec Sou had pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit forced labor.
Forty-four farmers from Thailand each paid recruiters about $20,000 for the chance to work at Aloun and earn $9.42 an hour. But prosecutors say their bosses under-paid them, forced many of them to live in modified storage containers, and threatened to have them deported if they were disobedient.
"If they know they are wrong, they're supposed to say, 'I'm guilty. I'm sorry,'" Somporn Khanja, Thai farmer, said through an interpreter.
But during sentencing, prosecutors and defense attorneys butted heads over certain facts outlined in their plea deal. US District Judge Susan Oki Mollway expressed concern and said, "I'm going to take the unusual step here of rejecting the plea agreement."
Mollway says this is only the second time in her 12 years on the bench that she has rejected a plea agreement. The other case involved the 2004 Pali Golf Course shootings.
With that, the defendants withdrew their guilty pleas and demanded a jury trial.
"It's back to square one," Howard Luke, Alec Sou's attorney, said. "They made their decision in court. We'll just stand by that decision."
But now, the Sous face the other two counts that were dropped under the plea deal, as well as a truckload of additional charges the government had planned to bring against them when they reached the agreement.
"I mean, their intent is just to really rip the whole family and rip the business," Alec Sou, defendant, said. "We know we've seen many lies on their accusations. There's going to be more of it."
"That could be multiple counts on visa fraud," Melissa Vincenty, attorney representing Thai farmers, said. "That's a slam dunk case on the visa fraud, so I'm not quite sure what they and their attorneys were thinking in terms of bringing this to trial."
"It's the client's decision," Eric Seitz, Mike Sou's attorney, said. "That's what they want to do, so that's what we do."
The trial is set for November 9th.
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