HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - After three days of trial in the human trafficking case against the owners of Aloun Farms, federal prosecutors on Thursday made a startling move of asking the presiding judge to throw out the charges "in the interest of justice."
The latest twist in the two-year legal battle came after a series of unusual events, including the defendants originally pleading guilty and then taking it back, as well as the sudden removal of the lead prosecutor for unspecified health reasons.
A couple of jurors told Hawaii News Now that they felt the Government had a weak case.
Leave it to a farm owner to use produce when explaining his relief that the criminal case against him is over.
"Super elated, man," Alec Sou, co-defendant, said after the dismissal was granted. "It's like 10 tons of watermelon lifted off my shoulder."
The Government says it received new information and no longer believes it can meet its burden of proof.
US District Judge Susan Mollway ruled last Friday that prosecutors couldn't claim that it was illegal to charge laborers recruiting fees in 2004, the year Alec and Mike Sou hired 44 people from an impoverished part of Thailand to work on their 3,000 acre farm in Kapolei.
The brothers were later accused of underpaying the farmers, forcing many of them to live in substandard housing, and then threatening deportation and the loss of work visas if they didn't comply.
"I think the US Attorney's office finally realized what we realized all along, and that's that this case, this whole prosecution has been baseless and without merit," Thomas Otake, Mike Sou's attorney, said.
The prosecution made its dismissal request outside the presence of the jury. Judge Mollway then called jurors into the courtroom to explain the "big development" in the case.
"The Government has moved to dismiss all the charges and I have granted that motion," she said. "The jury is dismissed."
"It came as a surprise, no doubt, to all of us," Gary Fujitani, Honolulu resident, said after being released from jury duty.
The forced labor statute at the time of the alleged offenses in 2004 to 2005 made it a crime to compel someone to work under the threat of "serious harm." Prosecutors had argued that "serious harm" could be financial, and that the threat of losing their jobs created fear among the workers that their families would be left homeless and destitute.
"They presented me a kind of weak case from the beginning," Frankie Maitland, juror, said. "That's kind of how I felt."
"To a juror, clarity in terms of what the attorneys are trying to convey to you is very important," Fujitani said. "I think the defense was a little bit more clear in reference to what point they were trying to make."
The civil attorney for the Thai farmers expressed disappointment in the outcome of the criminal case. The dismissal came before any of the complainants had a chance to testify.
"The case was not going well for reasons that we on the outside don't understand," Clare Hanusz, Thai farmers' attorney, said. "It's going to be quite a blow to the victims who not only are going to lose the chance at seeing justice in this case, but are not going to have the opportunity to tell their stories."
The Sous could have faced a 20-year prison sentence if convicted.
The attorneys say the case was dismissed with prejudice, meaning the Government can not re-file the charges.