Thursday, November 26, 2015         

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Jury finds deputy not guilty of sexual assault charges

By Nelson Daranciang


State Deputy Sheriff Benjamin Fonoti was acquitted Tuesday of charges that he sexually assaulting a woman in custody last year at Hono­lulu District Court.

A state jury found Fonoti, 30, not guilty of second- and third-degree sexual assault after deliberating for less than an hour. The charges involved sex and sexual contact between a law enforcement officer and a person in custody.

Fonoti said he had no doubt he would be acquitted.

"I'm glad its finally over," he said. "It's come full circle since Dec. 19." 

That was the date last year that investigators informed him of the allegations.

The prosecutor, Deputy Attorney General Albert Cook, said it was a difficult case because it came down to the victim's word against Fonoti's.

"We put on a lot circumstantial evidence," he said. "But at the end of the day, I believe the victim. I'm not sure what the jury thought."

Fonoti's lawyer, Eric Seitz, was critical of the state's handling of the investigation and of its decision to prosecute the case, saying the accuser had serious credibility problems. He contends the woman's story was contrived and that she was motivated by money.

COOK defended the decision to prosecute.

"This was the right thing to do because we think it happened and we think it was Mr. Fonoti," he said.

The 47-year-old woman testified that Fonoti took her to the fifth-floor cellblock on Oct. 10 last year and sexually assaulted her. She filed a complaint 10 days later.

She was in custody for a restraining order violation.

The woman picked Fonoti from a photo lineup of all the deputies who were working at the court on the day she said she was sexually assaulted. However, her description of her assailant — a deputy with a tooth that sticks out and with ehu or bleached hair highlights — does not match Fonoti.

She also gave investigators the shorts she was wearing and said they contained a spot of her assailant's DNA.

Police DNA specialists testified that there was not enough DNA to reach any conclusions.

Defense expert David Haymer, a genetics professor at the University of Hawaii John A. Burns School of Medicine, testified that there was enough DNA to conclude that it didn't come from Fonoti.

Fonoti said the Transportation Security Administration fired him because of the charges. He said he hopes to get that job back.

He kept his state job through the investigation and trial, and the Department of Public Safety said it looks forward to Fonoti returning to full duty.

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