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Thursday, December 18, 2014         

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Tragedy demands answers


POSTED:



Court officials are checking into what happened in the case of accused killer Toby Stangel, as well they should. The 28-year-old Wahiawa man, now facing murder and attempted murder charges in last week's shooting rampage, managed in 2007 to get an early dismissal of a firearms charge despite the fact that he had committed other crimes while under court supervision. The public needs to know: How?

Stangel's current notoriety comes in connection with one of the most horrifying episodes in recent memory: Friday's fatal shooting of Tammy Nguyen, 54, while she sat in her car, stopped at an intersection. Beside her sat her teenage daughter, one of her 10 children. Stangel allegedly committed that act as well as firing on and injuring two other people in apparently random attacks. He also allegedly fired shots at two police officers but missed.

Even as this case moves through the courts, it seems apparent that his previous encounter with the criminal justice system was bungled. The "how" of this is still unclear, but here's what happened: Stangel had been under court supervision since July 2004 after being caught carrying a gun without a permit in November 2003. It was a probation-like sentence in which, if Stangel met court requirements and stayed out of trouble for five years, the charge would be dismissed.

Except Stangel didn't stay out of trouble. The record shows he was arrested in 2005 for drunken driving and in 2006 for criminal property damage. Despite that, Circuit Judge Virginia Crandall granted the request for an early dismissal of the gun charge following a hearing Sept. 17, 2007. Judiciary spokeswoman Marsha Kitagawa said Wednesday she is gathering together all records or available transcripts to know more, although the Star-Advertiser's check of both online minutes and files showed no indication the newer offenses were put before the judge. Different public defenders and prosecutors were involved in various stages of this case, so miscommunication is certainly possible.

That doesn't make it right, however. The state needs to get to the bottom of this. Judges have discretion in early dismissals, but decisions need to be based on all the facts. And in Stangel's case, he was convicted both in the 2005 drunken driving incident and the 2006 property damage case — clearly violating terms of his court supervision.

Whether a different outcome would have resulted if Stangel had continued under court supervision for the full five years — or if supervision had been yanked in favor of tougher punishment — is unknown. But what is known is that, despite Hawaii's reputation for strict gun-control statutes, the state failed to follow through to the end. How Stangel came to be carrying a firearm without a permit in both 2003 and especially last Friday are concerning questions. Proper restrictions on firearms permitting is crucial, but penal statutes lose their power if offenders escape the full measure of justice. The fact that this may be through error rather than discretion is even worse.

These weaknesses in the criminal justice web may be a tangent in this tragic case of irrational violence. But exposing such vulnerabilities is important to public safety; the state must figure out better ways of ensuring a full disclosure of the facts of a case when a defendant's fate is being decided. Especially in firearms cases and other felonies in which violence is a potential element, such things cannot be allowed to slip through the cracks.






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