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Gaffe by Hilo jail prompts new restriction on inmate releases

HILO >> A recent blunder that resulted in an accused murderer being erroneously released has prompted a new restriction for Hawaii Community Correctional Center inmate releases.

Deputy Attorney General Laura Maeshiro, representing the state Department of Public Safety, said Thursday during a hearing that because Brian Lee Smith was mistakenly freed on July 24, the department has delegated the responsibility of releasing inmates from the Hilo jail to just two people — the warden and the chief of security, West Hawaii Today reported .

Smith remained free for two days before calling to turn himself into police around 11 p.m. July 26.

“The court is cognizant that the Department of Public Safety is conducting its own internal investigation in to this case, and as such, the court will leave it up to the Department of Public Safety to determine what did or what did not happen regarding the release of the defendant, Brian Smith,” 3rd Circuit Court Judge Melvin Fujino said after noting there was “no excuse” for the incident.

Smith was supposed to be held on $1.15 million bail after pleading not guilty on July 20 to multiple charges, including second-degree murder, second-degree attempted murder and first-degree attempted murder, in connection with the fatal shooting of Thomas Ballesteros Jr.

When the court was advised July 26 of Smith’s erroneous release, a hearing was held and Fujino issued a $2 million bench warrant for Smith’s arrest.

He remains in custody at the Hawaii Community Correctional Center in lieu of $2 million bail.

Maeshiro said that in addition to delegating inmate releases to the warden and chief of security, the department is working with the judiciary to develop an improved document transmission process to “serve as a check-and-balance to the hand-to-hand delivery type of procedures that are in place now,” which she described as antiquated and in need of much improvement.

Maeshiro also said the investigation is being done at the administrative level and involves no one employed at Hawaii Community Correctional Center.

Fujino suspended proceedings in the case pending a mental health examination by a three-doctor panel to determine Smith’s fitness to proceed with trial. The judge will take up the reports during a hearing scheduled for Sept. 28.

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