Defense team rests in Kealoha trial; closing arguments set for next week

Published: Jun. 20, 2019 at 5:10 AM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - The defense team in the so-called “mailbox trial” rested its case Wednesday with none of the defendants deciding to take the witness stand.

Questioning of the final defense witness ended Wednesday afternoon, and then the jury was dismissed for the day.

“That’s it. That’s the entire case for the defense,” Chief Judge Michael Seabright said.

On Thursday, rebuttal witnesses will be called.

And then on Friday and Monday, both sides will hammer out jury instructions. That means closing statements will happen Tuesday, barring any changes to the schedule.

[Special Section: The Case Against the Kealohas]

The trial has gone faster than anticipated.

On Wednesday, after taking the night to think about it, Katherine Kealoha told the judge she would not testify in her own defense.

Flanked by her two attorneys Tuesday afternoon, she told the judge she understood she had a right to take the witness stand.

“You always wait until the last minute," said Hawaii News Now Legal Analyst Ken Lawson, "You want to sleep on it, you know. It’s an important decision.”

Lawson, who was a longtime defense attorney rarely have defendants testify.

“The only time I would have had my client take the stand if there’s absolutely no way we’re going to win and if there’s no way we’re going to win and it’s a hail Mary, then you actually got to take a stand.”

Lawson believes the testimony Tuesday had a role in Katherine Kealoha’s decision.

Her civil attorney, Kevin Sumida, got grilled on the witness stand in cross examination.

Sumida was called up by Kealoha’s defense attorney. In 2013, he won a civil suit brought by the Kealohas against family members the government alleges were actually the victims.

Sumida told the jury Tuesday that they won “handily” and “convincingly” in that case.

The special prosecutor, Michael Wheat, objected over and over again and the judge sided with him on most of those objections.

In cross examination, Wheat got his chance and he did not hold back.

He pointed out the forged trust document that Katherine Kealoha allegedly created to pump up the assets of her uncle, Gerard Puana, in an effort to get financial accounts pushed through for her grandmother, Florence Puana.

The Puanas accused Kealoha of then stealing from those accounts.

Wheat asked Sumida if he knew that Kealoha bought a fillable trust document from a website called U.S. Legal Forms that looked exactly like the forged one.

The special prosecutor also asked about efforts to track down Alison Lee Wong ― the notary who no one disputes is made up and was used to legitimize questionable transactions.

Wheat pointed out that none of these issues were included in the civil case that the Kealohas won.

Sumida got tied up several times during cross exam.

Katherine Kealoha’s new co-counsel, Earle Partington, objected over and over again but the judge overruled most of those objections, saying Sumida opened the door to the subject matter.

HNN legal analyst Ken Lawson said putting Sumida on the stand was a “total mistake.”

“You all fooled the jury into thinking that somehow Katherine was on the up and up," he said. “We’ve since learned that she wasn’t and that’s what you didn’t know in the civil trial and that’s what came out in the cross examination of Sumida.”

sidebars are common at the Kealoha mailbox trial.
Sketch Courtesy: Carley Shimizu
sidebars are common at the Kealoha mailbox trial. Sketch Courtesy: Carley Shimizu

The testimony triggered more sidebars with the judge, a practice very common in this case in which the lawyers want to discuss issues with the judge without the jury or gallery hearing.

Sumida is considered a controversial figure because the Honolulu Police Commission ruled that taxpayers should pay legal fees to represent Louis Kealoha, the ex police chief, in the mailbox trial.

But Kealoha already has a court-appointed attorney.

Both Kealohas also owe Sumida hundreds of thousands of dollars or possibly a million, Wheat pointed out. If the Kealohas lose the mailbox trial, that could put his payments in jeopardy.

Another witness for Katherine Kealoha: Shari Motooka-Higa, from Central Pacific Bank.

She testified that she completed the reverse mortgage for Florence Puana, and that Puana was counseled on the process.

Puana, the elderly grandmother of Katherine Kealoha, testified that she didn’t understand the makings of the reverse mortgage but trusted her granddaughter to take care of it.

The government says Kealoha raided the leftover money, using about $150,000 to pay for lavish parties, expensive cars and trips.

Puana said the reverse mortgage forced her to sell her home because the interest was building.

In cross exam, Motooka-Higa said she was not there when the counseling process for Florence Puana was done, and she didn’t know who was there. She also said some of it was done over the phone.

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