After deliberating for about two weeks in what’s been described at Hawaii’s biggest crystal meth case, jurors convicted a California man of a conspiracy to distribute 400 pounds of the drug to the islands.
The jury on Friday acquitted two of his co-defendants, including Kaisa Tai, who walked out of the Honolulu federal courthouse a free man after three years in custody.
"Freedom is always something you should hold on to dearly," Tai said as he walked away from the courthouse.
The second defendant acquitted, Aloalii Tootoo, was already free on bond. "I give God all the praise," he said.
Jurors weren’t able to reach a unanimous verdict on the main conspiracy charge for Fouina Toilolo. But he was found not guilty of a charge involving meth possession with intent to distribute in July 2009. Prosecutors said they intend to re-try Toilolo on the charge the jury couldn’t decide on.
Six men originally went on trial, but two of them were later acquitted because the judge ruled there was a lack of evidence. The case ran into other significant prosecutorial setbacks, including the judge ruling that prosecutors were "sloppy" and tardy" in providing discovery materials to the defense. U.S. District Judge Leslie Kobayashi also referred Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Loo to the federal Department of Justice’s office of professional responsibility.
Prosecutors said the men received meth from Walter Dominguez, of Carson, Calif., who was found guilty of five counts, including the conspiracy charge. He was found not guilty of various other charges but jurors couldn’t agree on one count involving meth possession with intent to distribute in March 2012.
Dominguez is scheduled to be sentenced in September. Defense attorney Richard Hamar said he expects he’ll get a life sentence.
"The failure of a federal jury to reach a unanimous verdict of guilt in what has been called the largest crystal meth case in the history of Hawaii reflects more of the disturbing underbelly" of problems within the federal justice system in Hawaii, said Hamar, who is based in San Diego and Mexico.
Jurors had indicated on Thursday that they were deadlocked but the judge asked them to press on. On Friday morning, they requested transcripts of one witness’ testimony and a juror asked to speak privately with the judge, highlighting the stress the jurors were under. Some of them live on neighbor islands and flew home on weekends.
Then, they sent another note saying again that they were deadlocked. That’s when Kobayashi allowed the partial verdict.
"I’m delighted," said Tootoo’s Honolulu attorney, Lynn Panagakos. "I’m really impressed with the jury."
The case originally involved 19 defendants. Some have pleaded guilty. Four are scheduled to go to trial later.
During the more than two months-long trial, cooperating witnesses testified about how the men used encrypted emails and code words to transport drugs to Hawaii and cash back to California.
In his closing argument, Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Muehleck said the ring wasn’t very sophisticated or complicated but involved methods such as sending batches of cash back to California disguised as presents and using connections with airline employees.
Before the men went on trial, Sifatutupu Fuamatu, a former Delta Air Lines ramp agent, pleaded guilty to conspiracy in the ring, admitting she used her security credentials to transport hundreds of thousands of dollars in drug money from Hawaii to California. She said Dominguez paid her $6,000 for each trip.
Prosecutors declined comment on the verdict.