POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Jan 29, 2011
A proposal by Hawaii law enforcement leaders to expand the murder statute would be welcome, as it would limit the ability of defense attorneys to convince juries to opt for a lesser manslaughter conviction in heinous murders.
In past cases, brutal killers have won lesser verdicts and sentences; tightening the law would bring punishments in line to fit the crimes.
Present Hawaii law defines second-degree murder as intentionally or knowingly causing someone else's death.
Absent that intent or knowledge, jurors now can conclude that the defendant was merely acting recklessly when causing the death and therefore guilty of manslaughter, which carries a maximum 20-year prison term.
The change proposed by state Attorney General David Louie, county prosecutors and police chiefs would eliminate the need to prove that the defendant was aware that an attack would result in death in order to decide on a murder conviction, punishable by up to life in prison.
Louie cited the 1987 case of Alexander "Boy" Carvalho, charged with murdering his wife, whom he beat for an hour and a half, breaking 49 bones in her body.
A jury instead convicted him of the lesser charge of manslaughter, unable to reach a decision that Carvalho intended to kill her or did so knowing the lethal ramification of such an attack.
Juries reached similar decisions in the 1995 case of 17-year-old Emanuelu Tunoa, who joined three gang members in punching and kicking the head of a former fellow gangster, causing the victim's death.
A jury three years ago rejected the murder charge in convicting Glenn Keohokapu Jr. of manslaughter for stabbing to death a teenager who intervened in an argument between Keohokapu and his wife.
The proposal would not affect negligent homicide verdicts. Nor would it affect a jury's decision that a killing was attributed to extreme mental or emotional disturbance and thus the defendant was guilty of manslaughter but not murder.
Another proposal by the law enforcement coalition would put needed teeth in temporary restraining orders against those with convictions of felonies or crimes against household members. A first violation of a TRO would land a person in prison for 15 days and fines of up to $600, and subsequent violations would bring stints of at least a month and fines up to $1,000.
These changes recommended by the coalition address a gamut of problems that have been experienced in the courts.
Legislators should be aware that in cases involving murder defendants claiming less blame, a stricter law would indeed, in the words of the attorney general, "provide greater deterrence, foster public confidence and promote public safety."