The jury faces a challenge in deciding whether the agent shot a Kailua man in self-defense, a former prosecutor says
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Jul 7, 2013
LAST UPDATED: 6:52 p.m. HST, Jul 17, 2013
The trial for Hawaii's most publicized murder case in more than a decade opens Monday when the prosecution and defense present to a jury their widely divergent versions of how a State Department special agent fatally shot a 23-year-old Kailua man.
The key issue will be who instigated the deadly altercation and whether the off-duty special agent, Christopher Deedy, was justified in firing his 9 mm Glock at Kollin Elderts early in the morning of Nov. 5, 2011, at a McDonald's restaurant on Kuhio Avenue.
City prosecutors are seeking a second-degree murder conviction that carries a mandatory life term with parole, while defense attorneys say Deedy acted in self-defense and should be cleared of all charges.
The jury will probably also have the option of convicting Deedy on the lesser offense of manslaughter rather than murder.
The case holds similarities with the highly publicized murder trial of neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin unfolding in a Florida courtroom.
Like the Deedy case, the jury in the racially charged Zimmerman trial must determine whether the defendant committed murder or acted in self-defense.
But one significant difference is that Deedy fired the fatal shot at a fast-food restaurant with numerous witnesses, and the jury will view a McDonald's security surveillance recording of the incident.
Christopher Deedy, 29, is a special agent for the State Department who was in Hawaii in November 2011 as part of the security detail for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting. He lives in Arlington, Va., with his wife.
Kollin Elderts was a 23-year-old Kailua resident who was out with friends in Waikiki early in the morning of Nov. 5, 2011, when he was shot in an altercation with Deedy.
Deedy is charged with second-degree murder. He does not dispute shooting Elderts in the Kuhio Avenue McDonald’s, but contends that Elderts attacked him. The restaurant’s soundless surveillance video of the incident will be shown to the jury.
Deedy, 29, an Arlington, Va., resident, was here to help provide security for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, which drew national and international media coverage that included reports of the shooting.
The murder charge against the federal agent fueled anti-government sentiments and led to demonstrations by protesters holding signs calling for "Justice for Kollin Elderts."
The allegations that Elderts called Deedy a "f------ haole" added to the racial overtones of a Caucasian visitor shooting a local resident.
Hawaii lawyers also don't recall any trial here involving a law enforcement officer being prosecuted on a charge of firing a fatal shot.
THE MASSIVE publicity led to Circuit Judge Karen Ahn granting a request by city prosecutors to seal the soundless McDonald's surveillance video until trial.
The news coverage has rivaled that generated by the 2000 trial of Byran Uyesugi, who fatally shot seven fellow Xerox employees a year earlier in Hawaii's first workplace mass murder. Uyesugi was convicted after the jury rejected his insanity defense.
In Deedy's case, jury selection was completed in three weeks, which was quicker than expected, and both the prosecution and defense waived their final chances to excuse jurors without providing a reason, indicating both sides were satisfied with the panel.
Some legal observers say the jury likely will be able to follow the court's instructions to set aside any personal bias or sympathies based on the racial aspects of the case.
"I haven't seen juries really affected in Hawaii about race or racial overtones in a case, not like other places," said state Public Defender Jack Tonaki, who has been with the office for more than 27 years. "I think it's because our population is so diverse. Even if racial things are said, I think both sides will get a fair shake."
Previous murder cases here involving altercations and self-defense have sometimes resulted in a conviction of the lesser charge of manslaughter.
One reason, legal experts say, is that in Hawaii, once the issue is raised, the prosecution must convince the jury beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant did not act in self-defense.
"It's a heavy burden the prosecution carries," said Franklin "Don" Pacarro, a former city deputy prosecutor who handled murder trials. "But like any other case, it depends on the facts and what comes out at trial."
Another challenge for the prosecution is whether the jurors might put more weight on Deedy's contentions because of his status as a law enforcement officer, according to Pacarro.
Tonaki said, "The natural question is going to be raised, why would someone jeopardize his entire career and, just because they don't like someone, pull out a gun and shoot him?"
For the defense, one of the major challenges will be whether Deedy was drunk.
The prosecution has contended that Deedy violated State Department rules when he spent the night drinking with friends while armed.
Deedy appeared intoxicated at McDonald's, the prosecution asserted.
"Carrying a firearm comes with a lot of responsibility," Pacarro said.
Ahn will decide whether the jurors will be able to return a manslaughter verdict, an option that legal observers say will mostly likely be approved in view of Deedy raising the issue of self-defense.
Neither the prosecution nor defense is expected to urge the panel to return the manslaughter verdict. The prosecutors want the murder conviction, while the defense wants an outright acquittal.
A manslaughter conviction, however, would mean Deedy would face time in prison.
The opening statements are expected to follow the scenarios outlined in documents filed in court earlier by the prosecution and defense.
The prosecution's version is that Deedy slurred his words as he argued with Elderts, told him he had a gun and threatened to shoot Elderts in the face. Deedy "thrust kicked" Elderts, who later punched Deedy in the face. As Deedy got up from the floor, he pulled out his gun and started shooting, prosecutors said.
Deedy was never heard to say he was a law enforcement officer or federal agent, according to prosecutors, who also note that the special agent could have left the restaurant to defuse the confrontation and was not acting as a law enforcement officer when he shot Elderts.
The defense scenario is that although Deedy was off-duty, he was acting as a law enforcement officer based on his training.
The defense said a drunken Elderts harassed a customer. When Deedy asked the customer if he was all right, Elderts directed his aggression to the agent, called him a "f------ haole" and challenged him to a fight.
Deedy identified himself as a law enforcement officer and displayed his badge, but Elderts became angrier, the defense maintained.
Elderts moved toward the agent, who delivered a "frontal thrust kick" to Elderts' leg, according to the defense.
Elderts got up, hit Deedy's friend, Adam Gutowski, in the head and charged Deedy, grabbing his leg and hitting him in the face, the defense said. Deedy drew his gun, but Elderts charged the agent and tried to grab the weapon, defense attorneys maintain.
During the struggle, Deedy felt "compelled" to fire the fatal shot to defend himself and others, the defense said.
The critical issue for the jury is who was the first aggressor.
With witnesses likely to provide conflicting statements, Pacarro said the case will present "a challenge to both sides" as to what really happened at the restaurant.
DETAILS OF THE TRIAL
>> Judge: Circuit Judge Karen Ahn, former newspaper and television reporter, city deputy prosecutor and district judge; appointed circuit judge by former Gov. Ben Cayetano in 2000. Her second 10-year term expires in 2020.
Ken Kobayashi, Star-Advertiser