It’s now up to the jury.
After listening to 16 days of testimony from 71 witnesses and three days of closing and rebuttal arguments by the lawyers, the 12-person jury in one of the largest public corruption cases in the state’s history began deliberations Wednesday afternoon.
The seven men and five women will decide whether former Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha, his wife, former Deputy Prosecutor Katherine Kealoha, and three current and former Honolulu police officers conspired to frame Katherine Kealoha’s uncle for the alleged theft of the couple’s Kahala mailbox in 2013 and then lied about their actions to federal investigators.
The Kealohas and the three co-defendants — Lt. Derek Wayne Hahn, officer Minh-Hung “Bobby” Nguyen and retired Maj. Gordon Shiraishi — are accused of framing Gerard Puana to discredit him in a family financial dispute he was having with Katherine Kealoha.
Several months before the mailbox allegedly was stolen, Puana and his mother, Florence Puana, sued Katherine Kealoha, alleging she stole hundreds of thousands of dollars from them. A jury eventually sided with Katherine Kealoha.
>> Follow all our coverage of the Kealohas here.
At the time, Louis Kealoha was the chief, Katherine Kealoha was a high-ranking prosecutor and the three co-defendants were members of Honolulu Police Department’s Criminal Intelligence Unit, an elite squad whose members are hand-picked by the chief.
On Wednesday, the 19th day of the trial, attorneys for Hahn and Nguyen gave their closing arguments, followed by rebuttal remarks from Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Orabona, who had the last say before the jury left the courtroom about 1:40 p.m. to begin their deliberations.
Lawyers for the three other defendants gave their closings Tuesday.
Picking up a point made by the other defense attorneys, Randall Hironaka, who represents Nguyen, and Lars Isaacson, who represents Shiraishi, cited testimony and evidence that they said creates reasonable doubt about the charges brought by the prosecution.
If Puana was set up as prosecutors claimed, for instance, why would he be framed for a federal crime, not a state one, ceding control of an investigation to U.S. authorities, Hironaka asked jurors.
“Why would they eventually give up home court advantage,” Hironaka asked.
He also cited the grainy surveillance video of someone removing the Kealoha mailbox on the night of June 21, 2013.
Prosecutors noted that HPD turned over to federal investigators video showing only 30 minutes before and after the removal, not footage from earlier when prosecutors believe the mailbox was tinkered with so it could be removed quickly from its pedestal without any tools.
Prosecutors also say the earlier footage was recorded over to conceal what happened.
But Hironaka said there was nothing wrong with focusing on just the hour surrounding the incident, then recycling the hard drive so it can be used again.
He also challenged the credibility of several prosecution witnesses, including Niall Silva, a former CIU officer who pleaded guilty in the conspiracy case to filing falsified reports and lying repeatedly to the FBI and a federal grand jury.
Silva’s testimony was the only evidence saying Nguyen was part of the conspiracy, according to Hironaka. But Silva reached a plea deal with the government in hopes of getting a reduced sentence, Nguyen’s attorney said.
“He’s trying to mitigate his sentence now by dragging other people into a conspiracy that doesn’t exist,” Hironaka added.
Isaacson said the vast majority of evidence cited by prosecutors didn’t even involve his client, not a single witness had a bad thing to say about Shiraishi and the main issue was his recollections about a phone call with the chief in 2013, the day after the alleged mailbox theft.
Prosecutors say Shiraishi lied four times, including to the FBI and a federal grand jury, to help further the conspiracy.
But Isaacson attributed his client’s mistaken recollections, including during a Honolulu Ethics Commission interview, to uncertainty, not an intent to lie.
He played an audio recording of Shiraishi being interviewed in 2015 by the commission. As the jury listened, Isaacson marked on a poster board each time his client qualified his answer with such phrases as “I think” or “maybe.” Isaacson made 22 marks.
“That is not evidence that someone is trying to mislead,” Shiraishi said. “It’s evidence of someone trying to remember what occurred two years earlier.”
He also said the government produced no evidence to show his client benefited from the alleged conspiracy. “Money? No. What does he get? What benefit would he get from throwing his life away? None.”
In his rebuttal, Orabona addressed the key points made during each of the defense lawyers’ closing arguments.
He said, for instance, that Shiraishi lied to protect the chief, a friend who twice promoted Shiraishi. Orabona described Shiraishi as “the glue that holds the conspiracy together.”
Orabona noted that Shiraishi’s lies got stronger as he told them. The first two times he said he recalled being at home at the time of a 9 a.m. call from Louis Kealoha reporting his mailbox stolen. The last two times, Shiraishi remembered being at home because he was watering his lawn, Orabona said.
Shiraishi actually was playing golf that morning, according to witness testimony.
Orabona said all five defendants benefited from the conspiracy, including Nguyen, a low-ranking “footman” who was picked by the police chief to be in the elite intelligence unit.
“What better way to move up the ladder if you’re in the police department than being in CIU,” the prosecutor said.
Orabona also said there was no video evidence that the mailbox, which stood for years and which the mail carrier said was sturdy on the day of the alleged theft, was prepped because the hard drive was recorded over.
How did the thief know the mailbox could easily be removed without even using any tools?
“It was prepped for the taking,” Orabona said.
The defense cited a government witness who said the mailbox appeared to be assembled incorrectly.
Orabona said turning over the mailbox investigation to the feds was OK because the witnesses were members of the conspiracy. “You control the testimony,” he added.
In all, the government in the Kealoha case called 59 witnesses over 14 days, while the defense summoned 15 over three days, including three people who also testified for the prosecution.
Kealoha trial jury instructions by Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Scribd