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Judge acquits 2 in Hawaii meth ring trial

By Jennifer Sinco Kelleher / Associated Press

LAST UPDATED: 2:25 p.m. HST, Feb 13, 2014

A federal judge has acquitted two defendants in a drug ring trial, dealing another blow to prosecutors who allege the ring trafficked hundreds of pounds of crystal meth to the state.

U.S. District Judge Leslie Kobayashi on Wednesday found Harry Akana and Daniel Fola not guilty of all charges because of a lack of evidence.

The government "has failed to present any admissible evidence that Akana and Fola were even 'slightly connected' with the conspiracy," Kobayashi said in her order.

A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's office in Honolulu declined to comment on the decision.

Attorney Richard Hamar, who represents alleged Carson, Calif., ringleader Walter Dominguez, said Thursday the acquittals bode well for the remaining four defendants. He said he's confident the jury will acquit his client. Closing arguments are expected next week.

"I'm thrilled for them personally and their lawyers," Hamar, based in San Diego and Mexico, said of Akana and Fola. "It's a big win for local lawyers."

He said the judge's decision is rare at this late stage of a major trial and highlights "inherent weaknesses" in the government's case.

But Michael Song, a former federal prosecutor in Honolulu, said it's not that uncommon for a judge to grant acquittals to some defendants in a drug case involving conspiracy and numerous defendants. He said it could have been part of the prosecution's strategy for smaller players.

"It's not that big of a blow to the government," said Song, now a criminal defense attorney in Denver. "I'm sure (prosecutors) probably had in their mind a ranked order of culpability. ... I'm sure those people are still in it."

An indictment had alleged the six men conspired to distribute 400 pounds of methamphetamine.

Last month, Kobayashi ruled that the government was "sloppy" and "tardy" in providing discovery materials to the defense. She also sanctioned Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Loo for prosecutorial misconduct and referred him to the Justice Department's office of professional responsibility.

"The government withheld evidence as to certain witnesses, some of whom have already testified," Kobaysahi's jury instructions said of the sanctions.

Hamar said Loo shouldn't be blamed for "systemic" problems in the U.S. attorney's office.

"I give a lot of credit to Mr. Loo, who conceded there was no evidence," Hamar said. "I think lessons are being learned in this case right and left."

The jury's instructions regarding the acquittals urges jurors not to let that influence their verdicts for the remaining defendants: "For reasons that do not concern you, the case against Defendant Harry Akana and Defendant Daniel Fola is no longer before you. Do not speculate why."

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