With closing arguments complete, jurors in Kealoha ‘mailbox trial’ begin deliberations

Published: Jun. 26, 2019 at 6:03 PM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - Closing arguments in the closely-watched public corruption case against the Kealohas wrapped up Wednesday, and the case is now in the hands of jurors.

The jury spent the morning hearing from the two final defense attorneys before the government addressed them again to issue a strong rebuttal.

Prosecutor Joseph Orabona again touched on the allegations against each of the five co-defendants ― Louis and Katherine Kealoha and three officers, Derek Hahn, Bobby Nguyen, and Gordon Shiraishi ― and said it’s clear they had the motive and the means to carry out the alleged conspiracy.

He repeated a phrase he used during closing Tuesday: “In for an inch, in for a mile.”

On Tuesday, when closing arguments kicked off, Orabona told jurors that the case isn’t about a mailbox but about why the defendants would try to frame a Kealoha relative with its theft.

“The motives in this case are greed, to maintain prestige and power. The chief of police and a prosecutor," he said.

“This story neither began or ended with the theft to the mailbox. This story, this case, begins with the motives to steal that mailbox and where those motives came from.”

In this courtroom illustration, a federal prosecutor can be seen delivering closing statements...
In this courtroom illustration, a federal prosecutor can be seen delivering closing statements in the Kealoha mailbox trial. (Image: Hawaii News Now)

The prosecution’s closing arguments continued for two hours Tuesday, and included an in-depth timeline and alleged conspiracy. Despite the length, jurors appeared to be following along closely.

And then after a lunch break, it was the defense team’s turn.

Rustam Barbee, who represents ex-Police Chief Louis Kealoha, was the first defense attorney to address jurors Tuesday and quickly sought to seed doubt in jurors’ minds.

He said the government’s case is based on “speculation and imagination.”

“It’s a theory that has a weak foundation of circumstantial evidence that will not arise to the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt,” said Barbee, who spoke in an even and at-times incredulous tone.

He continued, “This theory about a frame job has no evidence. It’s a far-fetched conspiracy theory that’s very strange, bizarre, complicated, doesn’t make any sense.”

Cynthia Kagiwada, attorney for Katherine Kealoha, told jurors in her closing statements that the government hadn’t been able back up its major allegations against the defendants with evidence.

“The government from the very beginning made promises and they have not been able to fulfill them,” Kagiwada said. “There are no lies, but there are alternate explanations for the evidence that the government has presented to you. And those alternative explanations create reasonable doubt.”

The final two defense attorneys had to wait until Wednesday to make their closing arguments.

Randy Hironaka, officer Bobby Nguyen’s lawyer, started off the day and said his client did not benefit from the Kealoha’s alleged crimes of stealing from a relative.

Meanwhile, Lars Isaacson ― representing Gordon Shiraishi ― opted for a more dramatic presentation.

He used his hands to clap, snap and point as he repeatedly told them that Shiraishi wasn’t lying when he made false statements about the mailbox investigation.

But Orabona was able to pick apart each defendant in rebuttal, the last thing jurors hear before going into deliberations.

The case is now in the hands of the seven men and five women of the jury. And experts say they’ve got their work cut out for them.

There are six counts, but not all the defendants are included in each.

In jury instructions, Judge Michael Seabright laid it out. The conspiracy charge hinges on four alleged crimes: Deprivation of civil rights, obstruction of an official proceeding, making false statements to a federal government agency, and obstruction of justice.

In order to find the defendants guilty of conspiracy, the jury must unanimously agree that the Kealohas and three officers committed to or wanted to commit one of those crimes.

“A conspiracy is a kind of a criminal partnership,” Seabright told the jury. “The crime of conspiracy is the agreement to do something unlawful."

Other counts include lying to federal agents and in official proceedings.

Katherine Kealoha’s co-counsel, Earle Partington, said he does not expect a verdict this week.

“The amount of evidence, jurors generally want to do a good job," he said. “They’re going to take the time and look carefully at all the evidence. With 12 people this will not be quick.”

[Read more: ‘The Mailbox Trial’: Public corruption case of unprecedented scope in Hawaii gets underway]

The Kealohas entered the federal courthouse farther apart Wednesday than they have in the previous days of the mailbox trial. They did not seem to be in good spirits.

Kealohas walk into federal court on Day 18 of the mailbox trial, the final day of closing...
Kealohas walk into federal court on Day 18 of the mailbox trial, the final day of closing arguments

Katherine Kealoha was the target of Orabona’s closing and rebuttal.

In one particularly dramatic moment, Orabona talked about Allison Lee Wong, a key actor in the case that prosecutors allege was Katherine Kealoha’s alias. Allison Lee Wong’s signature was in key financial documents in the case, and her name even appears on a recommendation letter for Katherine Kealoha to the state Senate.

“Who is Allison Lee Wong?” Orabona asked jurors. “She’s here. She’s in the courtroom today. She’s sitting right there," he continued, pointing at Kealoha. "Allison Lee Wong is Katherine Kealoha.”

As Orabona spoke, Katherine Kealoha looked down at her notes and vigorously shook her head.

The trial revolves around the reported theft in 2013 of the Kealohas’ mailbox at their former Kahala home. The Kealohas pointed the finger for the federal crime at a relative, Kealoha’s uncle Gerard Puana, and the case even went to trial. But a mistrial was called after Louis Kealoha falsely said on the stand that Puana had been convicted of robbery.

Prosecutors allege Katherine Kealoha sought to frame her uncle with the theft in a bid to discredit him amid a family dispute over money she’s alleged to have taken from them.

[CONTINUING COVERAGE: The Case Against the Kealohas]

At the time of the alleged conspiracy, Kealoha was a high-ranking deputy city prosecutor and Louis Kealoha headed up the Honolulu Police Department.

And prosecutors say the facts of the case show how the Kealohas used their positions to exact retribution against their enemies, and how the three officers participated in the conspiracy.

Defense attorneys, meanwhile, have said the case is based on supposition and circumstantial evidence.

In all, 70 people took the stand in the Kealoha trial. The breakdown: 58 for the government, 12 for the defense, with three testifying more than once.

But HNN legal analyst Ken Lawson has said one stood out.

“Grandma was the most important witness," Lawson said, referring to Florence Puana ― Katherine Kealoha’s 99-year old grandmother.

He said Puana brought emotion to the case. Because of her poor health, Puana testified during a videotaped deposition before the trial began and that video was played for jurors.

At times, her testimony left people in the gallery in tears.

“In all these stories," Lawson said. “you’re going to have a good guy and a bad guy.”

Related coverage:

Unsealed records: Kealoha was prosecuting cases despite ‘serious’ medical condition

Testimony that conflicts with surveillance video gets Kealoha civil attorney in hot water

Legal expert: One witness stands out of the 70 in the Kealoha mailbox trial

This story will be updated.

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