State Supreme Court calls murder case against Kalihi man ‘unlawful’
Ruling could have broad ramifications for pending felony cases in Hawaii
HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The state Supreme Court put a halt to a murder case on Thursday against a Kalihi man who killed a 16-year-old boy in 2019.
The ruling could have broad ramifications on the state’s criminal justice system.
Richard Obrero claimed he shot Starsky Willy in self defense back in November 2019 after Willy and a group of teens broke into his Kalihi home and shot BBs or airsoft guns at his house.
“He’s very relieved,” said Obrero’s attorney Thomas Otake. “Everyone, including the Obreros, wished this whole incident didn’t happen and could have been avoided. As tragic as it was, it was the result of him defending his home.”
Prosecutors could not get an Oahu grand jury to indict Obrero so they charged him by criminal complaint and got a judge to sustain the murder charge.
In Thursday’s 3-2 ruling, the Supreme Court rejected that process and said all serious felonies must be indicted by a grand jury.
It’s a major shift in the criminal justice system.
“It provides a check on the immense power that we give prosecutors,” said Otake.
With hundreds of defendants charged by complaint, some prosecutors believe many class A and B felony cases will have to taken back to grand juries, causing chaos in the court system.
“What about the victims? What about our community, public safety concerns, all of these things need to be taken into consideration,” said Big Island Prosecutor Kelden Waltjen.
Honolulu Prosecutor Steve Alm said he was “disappointed” by the decision which creates “unwarranted restrictions.”
“(Today’s) ruling poses a threat to public safety by causing delay in the charging of violent and dangerous offenders,” Alm said.
He said Oahu grand juries now meet “only two days a week, instead of the previous three times a week before the pandemic.” Alm said the number of grand jury panels has also been reduced.
“Here in Hawaii Island, we’re limited to grand jury proceedings twice a month in Hilo, and once a month in Kona,” added Waltjen.
Defense attorney Myles Breiner said the ruling will force prosecutors to dismiss many of their cases or offer better plea deals in others.
“This could have a vast impact on our criminal justice system and a number of cases are going to be dismissed in short order,” said Breiner.
Prosecutors said they plan to go to the state Legislature for a new law making it clear they can use complaints to charge serious felonies.
But Obrero’s attorney said the criminal complaint process should not be used this way in the first place.
“To be clear, blame for any temporary chaos this ruling creates... should be placed on the prosecutors for getting it wrong,” Otake said.
“Not on the Supreme Court for now getting it right.”
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