The Aloun Farms trial involving brothers Alec and Mike Sou, who were accused of keeping 44 Thai immigrants as indentured laborers, opened Wednesday, July 27, with jury selection. It ended with a stunning turn on Thursday, Aug. 4, when federal prosecutors dropped all charges against the brothers.

The government issued this statement:

“In the interest of justice the United States moved to dismiss the
indictment based in part on the receipt of reciprocal discovery provided
by the defense that was not provided to the government until July 29, 2011. After thoroughly reviewing this information, the government
determined that it cannot meet its burden of proof beyond a reasonable
doubt. Accordingly, in the interest of justice, the Government
dismissed the charges in this matter.

“The department declines further comment at this time.”

In response, Thomas Bienert, attorney for Alec Sou, told Civil Beat: “I don’t even know what discovery they were talking about. I don’t think there was anything we gave them that was extraordinary.”

“We were repeatedly giving reciprocal discovery that if they took time to read it and understand it, would show that their case was wrong and that the Sous did not do what was alleged.”

The decision was the culmination of a dramatic week of hearings. This live blog from the courtroom chronicles the entire trial.

Read what the jurors had to say about the trial:

Read about the impact of the charges on the brothers and what they had to say about the case now that they’re unburdened of the threat of prison time.

To view and participate in the discussion, scroll down to the bottom of the page.

2:43 p.m. Hear From Alec and Mike Sou at Aloun Farms from their 2 p.m. press conference — VIDEO

The brothers will be speaking at a press conference at Aloun Farms.

On the sixth day of trial for Mike and Alec Sou, brothers who own and run Aloun Farms, the prosecution asked the judge to dismiss all charges “in the interest of justice.”

The brothers were charged in an alleged human trafficking scheme to keep 44 Thai farm workers as indentured laborers on their farm.

They faced up to 20 years in prison.

11:04 a.m. Justice Department Issues Statement

“In the interest of justice the United States moved to dismiss the
indictment based in part on the receipt of reciprocal discovery provided
by the defense that was not provided to the government until July 29, 2011. After thoroughly reviewing this information, the government
determined that it cannot meet its burden of proof beyond a reasonable
doubt. Accordingly, in the interest of justice, the Government
dismissed the charges in this matter.

“The department declines further comment at this time.”

9:05 a.m. Government Drops Charges

Government dismisses charges “in the interest of justice.” Washington D.C. lawyers reviewed new evidence (they won’t say what) and came in this morning and asked charges be dismissed.

The court is now back in session. The jury is in the room. The government attorneys are sitting at a clean table, empty but for a few pieces of paper.

Judge: “Ladies and Gentlemen…The government has moved to dismiss all the charges and I have granted that motion. For that reason. I am discharging you as jurors. I’m sure you’re highly disappointed.”

Chuckles from the jury.

The judge is going to meet with them in her chambers in just a minute.

Wife of Alec Sou is in tears.

Brothers are both smiling.

Clare Hanusz, who represents most of the Thai farm workers in the case, told Civil Beat afterward: “The dismissal at this point and the fact that they never got to tell their stories is a big blow. Right now I think there are more questions than answers. We will pursue other means of justice for what happened to them and we will pursue those vigorously.”

Outside the courthouse, Alec Sou told reporters he felt “super-elated, man. It’s like 10 tons of watermelon lifted off my shoulders.”

4:30 a.m. Pau For Today

Court adjourns for the day.

4 p.m. Debunking the Prosecution

Defense attorney Thomas Bienert is at work breaking down the prosecution, and doing a pretty good job of it.

He actually does a better job explaining at least one of the prosecution’s points. The jury hears in plain language that Aloun Farms was supposed to pay for transportation fees from Thailand to Hawaii — not the workers or their recruiter.

Bienert makes it sound like Thai recruiter William Khoo was just doing a nice thing for Alec and Mike Sou by offering to pay the fees for the 44 workers this one time.

There’s a clear change in presentation style, too.

Whereas the prosecutors never leave the lectern, Bienert clips on a wireless microphone and walks around as he talks.

He writes a list of words on a giant note pad on an easel. As he gets the witness to debunk each point, he puts a big check mark next to each:

  • Transportation
  • Meals
  • Passports
  • Freedom of Movement
  • Phones
  • No Threats

Chowsanitphon was only in Hawaii with the workers for two weeks, but he testifies that he saw the workers with food, with their passports. He helped them get calling cards and they could come and go as they pleased.

Bienert: “They were free to leave if they wanted, right?”

Witness: “Yes.”

Bienert: “While you were there…you certainly never heard Alec Sou or Mike Sou threaten a worker in any way shape or form did you?”

Witness: “Never.”

Bienert walks through their pay situation. The witness previously testified that workers were surprised at being paid less. Bienert explains this happened for two reasons: no work when it rains, and taxes.

2:45 p.m. Jury Learns French Misstated the Law

The prosecution is done with the witness Matee Chowsanitphon. Assistant U.S. Attorney Susan Cushman sits down. We’re now in cross-examination with Thomas Bienert, Alec Sou’s lawyer.

The jury learns quickly about former lead attorney Susan French’s faux pas — her misstatement of the law. (No mention, however, that it was in front of a grand jury.)

Bienert: “Is it fair to say that the main reason you pleaded guilty in this case because after meeting with Ms. French you believe you had committed a crime by receiving recruitment fees?”

Witness: “Yes.”

Bienert: “As you sit here now, do you understand that the law…back when you accepted the commission and recruitment fees, that it was legal to accept recruitment fees?”

Witness: “I didn’t know.”

Bienert: “Because Ms. French told you the opposite?

Witness: “Telling me that it was against the law? Yes.”

Chowsantiphon was not charged with the crime of accepting recruitment fees. Neither were the Sou brothers.

But the jury now knows a former member of the prosecution team didn’t know the law.

2:00 p.m. Thai Translator Giving Incorrect Facts

Twice in 10 minutes, the witness corrects his interpreter’s translation of his testimony.

First, she says visas had been extended for one year.

Chowsantiphon shakes his head. “No, one month,” he says in English.

The witness corrected the translation again a few minutes later.

The prosecution asks, after the visas expired, what happened to the workers? He says he got a telephone call to take care of 10 of them (and bring them to California where they could find work) and that there was work for two of them.

Again the witness interrupts and says “No.” Alec had work for two of the workers, he says in English.

Seems like substantive stuff to get wrong.

1:40 p.m. A Family Emergency

Just before court resumes after lunch, the mother of the defendants has broken into a cold sweat and complains about sharp chest pains. She has been attending the trial every day.

Now, she lays on a cushioned bench seat outside the courtroom. Security calls an ambulance. Emergency workers arrive and wheel her out of the building. She is conscious the entire time, but crying.

Alec and Mike Sou are there to comfort their mother and return to court once she leaves.

The jury comes back in and we resume trial.

1:30 p.m. Prosecution Has Trouble Connecting The Dots

The prosecution has introduced new evidence into trial, but they’re not doing a great job of connecting the dots.

Government witness Matee Chowsantiphon has been on the stand all morning.

He spent a lot of time telling the jury that there was a power of attorney document signed by Aloun Farms manager Jamie Ramirez, authorizing a Thai recruiting company to act on its behalf to recruit laborers.

Chowsantiphon says he carried it to Thailand with him when he went to fetch the workers.

This is important for the prosecution because it indicates that the farm signed off on these recruiters to act on their behalf — not just as a third-party contractor. But Assistant U.S. Attorney Susan Cushman doesn’t exactly make this clear to the jury.

Later, in response to questions, the witness tells the jury at least twice that the person paying for the 44 Thai workers to fly from Thailand to Hawaii is William Khoo — the aforementioned defendant in the case who remains at large. And he’s paying it out of the thousands of dollars in recruitment fees he collected from the workers, the witness says.

But the prosecution does not make clear why this is important.

Civil Beat chatted with lawyers familiar with the case outside of court, who said that who paid for the airplane tickets matters because under the H2A program, the employer is responsible for paying transportation costs — not the recruiter, who in turn is using the workers’ own money.

In this case, Aloun Farms is the employer. It follows that if the farm was supposed to pay transportation costs, it ostensibly saved a lot of money by letting the recruiter (and the workers) pick up the tab for them.

But all the prosecution shows the jury is a brief statement from Chowsantiphon on “covered costs.”

Under the employment contract, the witness testifies, certain expenses were to be covered — namely “transportation, housing, and the travel back and forth” to the farm, he said. “The only thing he did not have to pay for was the food. That he can take away from the workers…and he has to guarantee workers about 33 hours.”

No follow up questions from the prosecution to explain what “transportation” means or to connect the dots.

The jury is getting a slightly clearer picture of what the workers experienced soon after they landed in Hawaii in September 2004.

As soon as they got here, they were told their wages would not be between $1,600 and $1,800 per month as they thought.

Instead, a new sheet of paper passed around promises them only $1,200 in wages. And meals, costing about $12 to $15 a day were taken out of that, bringing their monthly wage to $1,000.

(It’s unclear if this $1,000 amount was also subject to taxes.)

Chowsantiphon: “Workers were going to be paid $1600 to $1800 that they were promised. But that sheet only showed $1200 and took away the meal, so it came around to $1000.”

Cushman: “Were workers being paid more or less than promised in employment contract?”

Chowsantiphon: “Yes, less than.”

Throughout the morning, the prosecutor stumbles through her questions, caught leading the witness or inviting statements that are hearsay.

Defense objects more than a dozen times and wins almost every one.

The government struggles most to get the jury to hear anything about whether the workers were rich or poor, and what they had to do to pay the recruitment fee.

In some cases Cushman tries to ask a question three different ways without success.

10:30 a.m. Witness: Alec Sou Didn’t Want to Pay the Wage

To get Alec Sou to agree to use Thai workers that Chowsantiphon found, the witness tells the jury that he had to sweeten the deal.

Chowsantiphon had initially offered Sou $1,500 per worker as an incentive. When he upped it to $2,500 per worker, Sou agreed.

This money came from fees workers paid to recruiters — to the tune of between $16,000 and $20,000 each.

Chowsantiphon got an $8,000 cut. The other half went to a man named William Khoo.

Jurors have heard a lot about Chowsantiphon’s meetings with Khoo, who introduced Chowsantiphon to this scheme to bring workers to the U.S. from Thailand.

Khoo is a defendant named in the indictment who is still at large.

Under the H2A visa program, an employer was supposed to pay $2 more than minimum wage to workers. The promised wage was $9.60 an hour.

Chowsantiphon tells the jury that Sou told him “he was unable to pay the rate of the H2A.”

“He said it was too high,” the witness said.

Sou also tells Chowsantiphon that he planned to keep the workers’ passports “so that the workers will not run away and work somewhere else,” the witness said. “And I told him right away that this was against the law.”

9:50 a.m. Disruptive Translations

Before we start, judge explains French’s absence by saying “she had a personal emergency so she has had to leave to take care of that.”

The government also asks the judge remind their witness that he is under oath.

New Thai translator on the case today.

Yesterday, the witness — who speaks English but is testifying at trial via an interpreter — twice corrected the translator.

Today, this translator appears to be very young and seems to be having problems, too.

Witness sometimes has to repeat his testimony so the translator can catch it. She mixed up a name and replies with Alec Sou’s name on at least one occasion even if the witness hadn’t said it.

It also doesn’t help that Assistant U.S. Attorney Susan Cushman asks compound questions, and questions in incomplete phrases.

The translation comes in spits and starts. Not very seamless, often hard to follow.

9:05 a.m. Trial Back on Track

Today is Day 5 and we’re back on schedule after yesterday’s unusual proceedings.

To recap, Assistant U.S. Attorney Susan French has been taken off the case indefinitely for unspecified health reasons amid questions that she misled the grand jury about the law. Reinforcements are en route from Washington D.C.

Here’s an analysis: Hawaii Human Trafficking Case Tossed Into Confusion

The prosecution again asked for a delay until Monday.

Judge Mollway denies the request:

“It’s not as if the only prosecuting attorney has suddenly become unable to proceed. That is not the situation and I’m not willing to take a break when I see two of you who seem prepared and seem experienced and able to perform competently,” she said.

“I don’t understand why you can’t keep going.”

Jury comes back in the room.

We are resuming testimony of Matee Chowsanitphon, Thai recruiter turned key government witness.

Here’s a quick summary of his testimony so far:

  • He helped connect the Sous with the cheap labor in Thailand.
  • Chowsanitphon pleaded guilty to visa fraud in 2003 in exchange for his testimony, and a sentence of six months house arrest and five years probation.
  • He met the Sou brothers in 2003 to discuss a business deal to transport the workers to Hawaii.
  • He got a cut of the recruiting fees workers paid — $8,000 per worker. He offered Alec Sou $1,500 of that if they would agree to employ the workers he brought in.

2:46 p.m. Prosecution Calls In Sick

Lead prosecutor Susan French has been excused from trial for unspecified health reasons, and the trial has been cut short for the day.

The timing coincides with the revelation this morning that French misstated the law in front of the grand jury. Specifically, it was not illegal for guest workers to have to pay a recruitment fee at the time of the Sous’ alleged crime. (See 9:30 a.m. post below.)

Backup is on the way from Washington D.C.: a deputy chief and a senior trial attorney.

One of them is expected to be the new lead prosecutor.

“This whole thing just developed at lunch,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Susan Cushman.

“A substitution of counsel was not intended because things aren’t going our way,” said her co-counsel, Kevonne Small.

French looked flush. Small stood behind her chair and gave a reassuring hug at recess just before proceedings began again.

Mike Sou’s lawyer, Thomas Otake chimes in.

“Our understanding is that a supervisor was called because of what happened with the grand jury,” Otake said. “My understanding is that the call was made because of problems” … made in the filing of this case.

It starts to sound like the defense is walking up to a mistrial.

The government lawyers ask for a continuance through Friday. The new attorneys need a day to fly, and a day to get up to speed on the case.

Small says she cannot say whether the new prosecutor will approach and read the case the same way she and Cushman did.

But Judge Mollway is concerned about losing jurors to travel plans after Labor Day. The case is already slated to run through the end of August and she can’t afford to lose more than two days of trial.

Mollway: “We have two experienced litigators here. Is it at all possible for you to pick up?”

Cushman: “I don’t feel I’m in a position to assume position of lead counsel.”

Same from Small: “I can’t do it by myself. My office is prepared to send out two other attorneys to assist me and Ms. Cushman. I put in a call in soon as there was a problem.”

Thomas Bienert, Alec Sou’s lawyer, notes that each lawyer has taken on significant pieces of the prosecution so far: Small took opening arguments, and Cushman is the lead on key government witness Matee Chowsanitphon.

Judge asks if “the call” was made because of French’s personal issue or because of matters discussed before lunch on the record (read: grand jury missteps.)

Cushman: “It’s both basically. Ms. French told me she has not been feeling well. I know her when she comes out to Hawaii. She has not seemed to me like she has seemed on other trips.”

Judge: “I accept that there is a serious matter she has to take care of.”

Small added: “My concern has been in place for many weeks, and I have called about that particular issue before. It has reached a critical point.”

Otake isn’t buying it, saying these other D.C. attorneys are coming in “because now there’s an ethical problem with what they did to these guys in the grand jury.”

Bienert, an experienced former assistant U.S. attorney, is taken aback by it all.

“I’ve never had this happen before. I might have some follow up thoughts with the court.”

Judge rules that we’re excused for today, but trial will go on as usual tomorrow. 9 a.m. sharp.

Cushman, on her way out of court, is asked if French is officially off the case.

“She’s sick right now.”

Is she coming back?

“I don’t know. It depends on her health.”

Bienert is short on words: “I think you can see from what was said on the record that all of this just happened.”

He and Otake decline to comment further.

12:30 p.m. Lunch

Lunch recess from noon to 1:30 p.m.

11:45 a.m. Translation Issues

Some stumbles trying to figure out how the translation will work.

The translator is a young woman speaking into a microphone both questions translated into Thai and his answers translated into English.

Some stops and starts as at first the translator and Chowsanitphon speak simultaneously and over each other. Other times he talks for too long.

As this is happening, at least one juror looks to the ceiling. Another puts a hand to her head. Even Judge Mollway has a furrowed brow as she stares at the laptop computer at her left, which shows the court reporter’s transcript.

Chowsanitphon has to be instructed to speak a sentence or two, and then pause for the translation.

Once the translation gets going more smoothly, the jurors are more attentive. Several are taking copious notes.

Worth noting the defense appears to have its own translator sitting between Alec Sou and his attorney Thomas Bienert.

11:10 a.m. Thai Recruiter Takes the Stand

Matee Chowsanitphon is wearing a long-sleeved white button down shirt and black pants. He tells the jury through an interpreter that he is 57 years old. He currently works at a 7-11 in California. He was born in Thailand but is currently a U.S. citizen, about 16 years.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Susan Cushman takes a turn at the mic for the first time.

Cushman: You speak English?

Chowsanitphon: Yes.

Cushman: Why are you using a translator?

Chowsanitphon: Because I don’t speak English 100 percent. I would like to have an interpreter so that she can translate for me in the words of the court so that I can testify 100 percent.

He says he was convicted for visa fraud involving the 44 Thai workers at Aloun Farms. The prison term was to be no more than three years. But he did not go to prison. His sentence involved house arrest for six months and five years probation.

He also had to repay the 44 Thai workers $48,000.

10:10 a.m. Reporter Tries to Register a ‘Standing Objection’

The jury came back in around 9:30 a.m., but minutes earlier, the prosecution wanted a bench conference. They wanted to share something with the judge and the defense, but didn’t want the press or public seated in the gallery to hear.

Ken Kobayashi, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser‘s trial reporter, jumped up and objected “to a sidebar when there’s no jury present.”

It’s tantamount to a closed hearing, he says.

Judge Mollway hears him out.

“In general, I agree that things that are said on the record, are things that the press is entitled to participate in,” she said. “I understand that this is unusual. Let me hear what the nature of the thing is.”

Kobayashi asks to register a standing objection to every bench conference when a jury isn’t present.

Mollway chuckles. The press isn’t a party to the case, she says.

“People in the audience may object to everything I do, but they don’t get a standing objection,” she said. “I understand your position. I take it as a given that the press and the public have an interest … That’s why we have public trials. I take it as a given that you always want more, not less … I appreciate that you don’t jump up every time we have a bench conference.

“I know you always want to hear everything… but I can’t have complicated First Amendment access to press issues every moment,” she said.

Judge goes into bench conference, comes back and discloses for the gallery the general subject matter.

It was a personnel issue relating to a potential witness. All parties agree that personnel issue will not be relevant to the trial proceedings.

9:30 a.m. The Grand Jury and Those Recruitment Fees

It’s barely 9:30 a.m. and already some interesting issues have come before the court.

Defense attorneys spent part of the weekend prepping for their cross-examination of Matee Chowsanitphon, the Thai recruiter who worked with the Sous and will testify for the government.

Thomas Otake, Mike Sou’s attorney, reads a section of a grand jury transcript that shows Assistant U.S. Attorney Susan French may have misstated the law to Chowsanitphon and the grand jury.

French said: “Did you know that under the H2A program, the foreign workers could not be charged any recruitment fees?”

Turns out, that wasn’t the law at the time.

Otake says H2As did not prohibit collection of recruitment fees at the time of the alleged crime in 2003-2004. The law was changed in 2009, adding such a restriction, but none existed at the time.

Prosecution appears caught flat-footed.

Judge has to ask French more than three times whether she agrees that she misstated the law in front of the grand jury.

French is evasive.

Judge appears momentarily flustered: “You’re a prosecutor, you very well understood…”

Prosecution is ordered to make no suggestion before the jury that charging recruitment fees was illegal under the H2A visa program.

9:05 a.m. Thai Recruiter Due on the Stand Today

We’re back! This is Day 4 of the trial of Alec and Mike Sou.

(Trial runs Tuesday-Friday, with Judge Mollway keeping Mondays open on her calendar to hear motions and conduct sentencings in other cases.)

The jury hasn’t been called in the room yet, but we’ll be restarting cross-examination of the prosecution’s second witness, an expert from the Department of Labor, from Chicago.

The real fireworks should come during the testimony of Matee Chowsanitphon, Thai recruiter turned government witness.

And in case you missed it over the weekend, a nice piece by my colleague Nanea Kalani, who was also watching opening statements:

4:22 p.m. Pau for the Day, Debt Ceiling Top of Mind

We’ve adjourned until Tuesday at 9 a.m.

Judge Mollway notes it’s possible that if the debt ceiling isn’t raised, that could change.

“You may think I know what to do if this happens, but I don’t,” she said. “As recently as today I got a little notice from people in Washington D.C. They also don’t know what to do. Just assume that we’re going to proceed as normal.”

She added: “Call Monday evening.”

4 p.m. Candy Container Making the Rounds

Trial just got tedious and the jury is squirming.

After Agent Salazar left the stand, we’re now hearing from a woman who is the government’s expert witness on H2A guest worker visas.

It’s important stuff, explaining how the application works, and how it’s filled out. Visa fraud is a key charge.

But we’re entering the seventh hour of trial today and the candy container is making the rounds again in the jury box. Lots of Reese’s peanut butter cups being consumed at the moment.

3:32 p.m. Motty In The House

Seen in the courtroom: Mordechai “Motty” Orian, the CEO of Global Horizons.

That’s the Los Angeles-based labor recruiting firm that Aloun Farms worked with at one point. The firm and its principals also face their own human trafficking charges.

Looking sharp in a tailored black suit, he was sitting at the back of the courtroom for the afternoon.

This isn’t his trial and he’s here as a member of the public. Never mind that a former employee of his is expected to testify in this trial against the Sous later on.

If anything, he’s getting a preview of what his trial will look like. This is the same team of government attorneys that are prosecuting the case against him.

3 p.m. FBI Agent Off the Hot Seat

FBI Agent Salazar is off the stand. Mixed bag for a first witness.

She helped the government introduce into the record some very important evidence. But she also got a pretty good grilling from the defense.

The defense took clear advantage of her relatively short career as an agent, repeating that fact several times in questions to her. All presumably to call into question her credibility.

Not her fault that Special Agent Gary Brown, who did the bulk of the investigation on this case, was temporarily reassigned on June 30 to Washington D.C. Salazar testified that she only started working this case in a supporting role about 10 months ago.

Still, she’s the government’s lead case agent. She is the Honolulu office’s expert on the case.

2:55 p.m. Scaling a Rock Wall

The government alleges that the Sous restricted the workers’ movements, that a chain link fence and rock well prevented them from leaving the Waianae house where they lived.

The jury already saw a picture of the rock wall and fence in question during the defense’s opening statements.

FBI Agent Salazar is asked if she’s ever been out to the house in Waianae.

She says no.

Otake presses on this point. She’s the lead agent on the case (for all of a month), yet she’s never been out to a crime scene mentioned in the indictment? Isn’t that contrary to her FBI training?

Agent Salazar can’t argue with him.

Could she scale the wall in a picture she’s shown?

She answers yes.

How about a healthy male (Thai worker)?

She says probably yes.

On re-direct Agent Salazar notes that the Sous sold the property in 2006, the year after the alleged crimes happened.

She also notes that the photos shown by the defense are undated — she doesn’t know that the pictures are an accurate depiction of the fence at the time of the alleged crime.

She also can’t testify as to whether that’s really the house where the workers lived — she’s never been to Waianae to see it before.

2:24 p.m. FBI Agent Doesn’t Know Her Hawaii Geography

Earlier this morning, Bienert said that this is a case is about how the federal government investigated — and didn’t investigate — this case.

He and his co-counsel, Thomas Otake, seem to be making their point pretty well.

Otake, Mike Sou’s attorney is now on cross-examination of FBI Special Agent Salazar.

Otake: “Would it be safe to say that you’re the special agent that would possess most familiarity with this case, in Honolulu?”

Salazar: “Probably, yes.”

Yet her knowledge of where the actual farm is seems limited. She testifies that she’s only driven out to the farm once.

Otake: “What is the nearest town?”

Salazar: “Waianae.”

Wrong answer.

At that, the one local U.S. attorney sitting at the government table puts her hand to her head.

Otake informs her that Waipahu is a five minute drive from the farm.

“Are you aware that Waianae, is a solid 30-35 minute drive away?” Otake asked. “Ever heard of Kapolei…Ever heard of Nanakuli? Those are all towns closer to the farm than Waianae.”

1:27 p.m. FBI Special Agent on the Stand

The first witness is FBI Special Agent Laura Salazar. She’s the case agent on this case, and the agent who’s been sitting at the government’s table throughout pretrial and jury selection.

We’re in cross-examination now, but earlier she told us she’s been a special agent for just over a year, assigned to Honolulu’s white collar crime squad. She took over this case as its lead agent on June 30, 2011. Before becoming an agent, she was a financial analyst and has been with the FBI for 12 years. She’s lived in Hawaii for eight years.

Through her, the government introduced several pieces of evidence, including the aforementioned all-important video testimonial. (The video is the entire basis for the obstruction of justice charge.)

She explains that the alleged victims are eligible for T-visas, which allows them to stay in the U.S. while their human trafficking case is being investigated.

She’s in cross-examination now with Bienert, Alec Sou’s lawyer.

And Bienert lists for the jury the “benefits” provided to those who qualify for T-visas:

  • Staying in the U.S.
  • Bringing their families over
  • Allowed to work legally
  • Cash aid
  • Food Stamps
  • Health benefits

Special Agent Salazar confirms that he is correct.

1:05 p.m. Taking Care of the Jurors

Judge Mollway is being very attentive to her jurors.

She keeps a close watch on both the proceedings and the faces of her jurors. Earlier this morning, a juror had a coughing fit during opening statements. She quickly motioned for her court manager to give him a cup of water.

A second juror made motions indicating that she needed a bathroom break. The judge called an impromptu 5-minute break before Alec Sou’s attorney got up to give his statement.

Even though the jurors have coffee available to them in the jury room, once in the jury box, the jurors passed around a plastic sandwich container filled with peppermints and other sugary treats. The candies are compliments of the court.

12:14 p.m. More from the Government’s Opening

Much of the government’s opening this morning used powerful, emotional words.

Fear. Threats. Deception.

These are all tactics Alec and Mike Sou used to coerce work out of compliant laborers from one of the poorest provinces in Thailand, says Kevonne Small, one of the co-lead attorneys for the government.

The workers “will tell you how they try so hard to be providers their families…they wanted children to have opportunities they didn’t have,” Small said.

The Sou brothers “targeted these men who had so little. And preyed on their helplessness and fear,” she said.

The workers had all been enticed to come to work for the Sous, with dreams of making $9.42 an hour for up to three years of work. That’s a lot of money, considering each worker’s income for an entire year in Thailand was a mere $25.

So how did the Sous come up with the scheme?

They learned from another company that had been doing the same thing.

Small did not say the name “Global Horizons” in her statement, but those familiar with the case know that’s the company she’s talking about. The Los Angeles-based recruiting firm and its principals face human trafficking charges separately in what federal authorities call the largest human trafficking case in U.S. history.

Indeed, one of the government’s chief witnesses is a former employee of Global Horizons, who will talk about seeing workers living in “unsanitary metal containers with no indoor plumbing,” Small said.

The evidence will also show how, after watching Global Horizons import workers, Alec Sou would come up with his own scheme to do the same thing.

There are other counts of visa fraud and obstruction of justice.

Mike Sou is accused of signing federal visa applications that contained misinformation.

(Otake’s response on Mike Sou’s behalf is that Alec was the brains and Mike took care of operations. “Books aren’t his thing. Alec wasn’t there,” Otake said. So Mike signed the form and sent it in.)

The obstruction of justice count is about a video testimonial played last year at the brothers’ sentencing hearing, the day the judge threw their plea out.

The government contends the video is rife with false statements and misleading information.

The defense says, blame it on the Sous’ old lawyers, Howard Luke and Eric Seitz. Both are on the defense’s witness list. So we’ll surely hear their side of the story later.

11:40 a.m. Lunch Break

Trial breaks for lunch. Resumes around 1:10 p.m.

11:31 a.m. Defense Dispute

Nearly every seat in the courtroom fills by the time defense starts its openings.

Thomas Otake, Mike Sou’s lawyer, is the first to go. He strikes a more conversational tone than the government: “Ladies and gentlemen, there are two sides to every story.”

“This is not a case of forced labor. This is a case of the workers wanting to be here and wanting to stay,” he said. “The workers were paid by Aloun farms and they were paid well.”

But their visas ran out earlier than expected. And so they found a woman who would tell them how they could stay — by complaining to the federal government about their employment conditions.

To hear the defense tell it, up until the point their visas ran out, the workers were happy. He flips around a giant poster board with an undated picture of three workers smiling and looking chummy with a longtime local Aloun farm employee. One of the Thai workers is the same one who was mentioned by name as an alleged victim by the government in its opening statement, Otake says.

This man “will tell you he took these workers fishing. He took these workers to bars. He took them to buy beers.”

“They look pretty happy,” Otake said. “This guy has a beer in his hand. These are not oppressed Thai workers.”

Many of the workers lived in a house in Waianae, which the government contends the workers were confined and trapped in.

Otake then flips around another poster board with a picture of a medium-height chain-link fence and a medium height rock wall.

“This is the fence that the government says ‘trapped’ the workers in their house in Waianae,” he said. “These workers came and went as they pleased.”

A neighbor will testify to seeing the workers “at the beach. He seen them carrying beer. He seen them bringing women over.”

But, again, their visas ran out early. And so they were in a bind, Otake says. They owed money to recruiters in Thailand — recruiters who worked independently from Mike and Alec Sou, Otake says.

The workers had been told in Thailand that they could stay in Hawaii for as long as three years. But that all depended on the federal government renewing their initial five-month visas.

Thomas Bienert, in his opening for Alec Sou, said: “Workers had free will to go where they wanted, when they wanted…They didn’t leave because frankly, they wanted the work.”

The main points, answering to the government’s charges:

  • Alec and Mike Sou did not orchestrate the recruiting of workers in Thailand. That was done by a separate company that the Sou’s had contracted with.

  • Workers were paid. They were not coerced, they had free will to come and go as they please.

9:58 a.m. False Promises, Broken Dreams and Greed

We’re in opening statements.

We’re all business on the government side. No friendly set up or greeting. Attorney Kevonne Small walked to the lectern and immediately launched into her statement:

“This case is about false promises, broken dreams and greed. It’s how the defendants took people who had nothing…and then held them in fear of losing everything because they had nowhere to turn,” she said.

No mincing words.

The men were from one of the poorest provinces in Thailand, enticed to work in the U.S. where they would make a lot more money, and who paid recruitment fees of between $16,000 and $20,000 to land these Hawaii jobs.

Alec and Mike Sou were complicit, Small says. They were partners with those recruiters, working directly with them to set up the scheme, even if they weren’t in Thailand themselves to do the job pitch.

Behind the “friendly farm mask was a scheme of deception and greed,” Small said.

We hear some of the same allegations from the government we’ve heard before.

The workers were made to sleep in metal shipping containers with no indoor plumbing.

They ate moldy bread.

9 a.m. The Big Opener

There’s a flurry of activity this morning as the lawyers prep for the big event of the day: opening arguments.

The doors opened at 8:30 a.m. and both sides were soon inside.

Two large easels being set up. A giant projector screen has been lowered to cover part of the wall opposite the jury box.

The opening arguments, as described yesterday by Judge Mollway, will be a “roadmap” to the trial.

The government will be going first. Some new faces are crowded around the government’s table this morning to help them set up a laptop, which is wired to a projector.

About two dozen in the audience this morning, including Alec’s mother and Mike’s young daughter. Mike and Alec sit in the chairs closest to their family, chatting over the wall. They look the way they have every day this week — attentive but relaxed.

The Thai translator has arrived.

No smiles from the government lawyers as they scan the crowd. They seem rather tense.

Room is filling up, there are now about three dozen spectators, including at least five reporters.

4:10 p.m. Opening Arguments in the Morning

No opening arguments today. They’ll happen first thing in the morning.

If you’re coming down to the courthouse to watch, better get here early. The trial starts at 9 a.m. There are 82 seats in the room and some security hoops to jump through.

Cell phones, computers, digital recorders, laptops (except those belonging to lawyers with active cases before a judge, or your reporter) are not allowed in the courthouse.

You’ll also have to go through a metal detector along with all the jurors — which means, sometimes there are lines.

3:50 p.m. Jury Is Seated

We have a jury.

Nine men and three women, with three men and one woman as alternates.

3:25 p.m. Water, Candies, and Tissue

As the attorneys pass the juror list back and forth, Judge Mollway is keeping the group entertained.

She’s telling them how the courtroom works — and what they can expect if they are chosen as a juror for this trial.

For one, bring a jacket. Mollway describes a fellow federal judge’s courtroom as a savannah. By contrast, hers is more like an icebox.

Second, jurors can bring their own water bottles, but they just need to ask and water can be made available, too. Same with candies and tissues.

Mollway talks about her role as a federal judge. Her job is a lifetime appointment, she says.

“We can quit. But it’s really hard to fire us.”

3:15 p.m. Peremptory Strikes

Voir dire is over. We’ve moved on to “peremptory strikes.” This is how we’ll get down from 36 jurors to the final 16.

The judge explains that the strikes are allowed based on attorneys’ “gut reactions.”

She keeps the mood light.

It could be, she said, that an attorney says about a juror: “You look like my Uncle Joe, I can’t stand him, it will be uncomfortable for me to look at you for the whole trial… and he’s just a nasty person…or they might think that you just seemed a little friendlier to the other side.”

“It’s a gut reaction. They’re allowed to do this.”

The government and defense are passing back and forth a piece of paper with all the jurors’ names on it.

The whole process will take about 15-20 minutes.

2 p.m. A Jury of 36

All jurors are back in the courtroom. The lawyers have so far agreed on these 36 jurors. There are 16 sitting in the jury box and the rest are in the audience chairs.

Couple more questions to determine bias:

  • Has anyone worked in the farming industry?
  • Anyone had any experience with foreign nationals who lived or worked with you, helped get them immigration papers?
  • Any lawyers, paralegals in the jury pool?
  • No one speaks any dialects of Thai, right? (none said yes)

Each juror is being asked to speak into a microphone to find out what each juror does for a living, whether they’re single, married or have children.

1:30 p.m. Sketching Out the Case

As Civil Beat live blogs from one end of the room, a sketch artist practicing the time-honored courtroom tradition of hand-drawing defendants has set up shop on the other.

The artist, working for KGMB, has taken a seat in the first row. She’s opened her sketch pad and is using a pencil to outline the images of Alec and Mike Sou sitting at the defense table.

Sitting on the seat next to her is a briefcase full of artists’ tools, including pencils of many shades of brown and pieces of pink-hued pastels.

She’s only been at work for about 15 minutes but already she seems to have Mike Sou outlined.

11:32 a.m. The Law of You

Twice this morning we’ve seen jurors who seem confused about which law they need to follow — the one laid out by the judge or their own.

One woman in her 30s had trouble promising the judge that she would presume the defendants are innocent, and base her decision in the case on the evidence presented only (and not media reports).

“It is the law, but there’s a flaw in that, in my opinion,” she said.

The judge excused her.

Mollway had the following exchange with another potential juror, a man in his 60s whose silver hair was pulled back in a ponytail:

Judge: “If you want to make up Soken law (the man’s last name), which is different from what the law really is. Is that what you’re going to do?”

Juror: “I don’t know, to be honest.”

“You think you might make up your own law and find them guilty?”

“I’m not real sure.”

He’s been excused.

10:35 a.m. Birthers, Bias, and Evading Jury Duty

The judge is questioning jurors individually about what they’ve seen, read, heard about the case — and whether they understand what it means to follow the law to presume the defendants innocent.

It’s an involved back-and-forth that takes 20 to 30 minutes apiece.

Do you believe everything you hear in the media?

Judge Mollway gives a specific example: “When you read a report that President Obama was not born in the U.S., do you tend to believe he was lying when he says was born in Hawaii?”

What’s she getting at? She wants to know if jurors are actually biased or just “purporting to have bias for purposes of evading jury service,” she said. “If every juror said, ‘Well I’m biased so just excuse me…otherwise that would make it impossible to select a jury.'”

10:02 a.m. Logistics

Things to consider when seating a jury for a month-long trial: Preplanned trips to Las Vegas. Funeral Services. Oral surgery.

The logistics are nothing to sneeze at. Getting 16 people who can be in trial for the better part of a month and be unbiased coming in is a tall task.

And when the trial lasts so long, you get plenty of people making excuses about why they can’t serve. Some are legit, like the researcher who has to present a paper at a conference on Aug. 30. Or the college student who needed oral surgery before heading back to school in September. Both were excused.

Other excuses are less clear. After more questioning, a juror admitted a trip to Maui could be postponed.

You learn a lot about people when sitting in on what most people consider the “slow” part of a criminal trial.

Most news reporters stay away for jury selection, which can take days.

But that’s when you get to hear some life stories of the potential jurors. And you get a real sense for a slice of the population that put together, should make up a jury of our peers.

8:55 a.m. UPDATED — Here Come the Props

Welcome back! We’re on Day 2 of the Aloun Farms trial. Proceedings haven’t started yet and a jury has yet to be seated, but there’s a little bit of tension in the air.

Alec Sou sits at the back of the courtroom with his wife and a family friend. Mike Sou is nearby, too. Khakis and aloha shirts worn all around.

Judge Susan Oki Mollway told both sides to expect a jury to be seated today — and for opening arguments soon after.

The defense arrived at the courtroom this morning toting heavy boxes with thick binders and props, big ones.

One of them looks like a large wall painting more than four feet wide wrapped in brown packing paper.

If the government has large props of their own, they haven’t been brought to the courtroom yet.

4:40 p.m. End of Day, Parting Instructions

Jurors finally let go for the day after a nine-hour stint in the courthouse.

Judge Mollway offered some parting instructions:

“Avoid any news reporters — television, radio, Internet. Don’t go on Facebook and talk about this case. Don’t read blogs about this case. Don’t tweet about this case.”

She added: “If you want to read the newspaper, ask a family member or friend to go through it first.”

Cut-outs or black-outs of news related to this case recommended.

4:30 p.m. Still No Jury

Jury selection on day 1 is over. No jury’s been seated. Other lawyers in the room say that’s about average.

The room’s cleared out since this morning. Just eight spectators, including two reporters.

Whenever a juror is excused and Judge Mollway calls a new one, she tries to keep the mood in the room light: “You folks just won the lottery!”

4:00 p.m. The Whole ‘Press’ Issue

Read, seen or heard anything about this Aloun Farms case?

That could be a problem — if you’re a potential juror in this case.

We’re in voir dire right now. The jurors are sitting in the next room.

The judge is calling jurors back into the courtroom one-by-one to answer what they have or haven’t heard about the case in the news.

At least three potential jurors said they’ve heard something about the case, but can’t recall details. They didn’t have opinions about whether the Sou brothers are guilty.

One of the longer exchanges came from a recently retired, 30-year U.S. Customs Service veteran.

Judge: “You think you heard something….are you able to tell me and promise me that instead of worrying about what you heard on the news that may not even be about this case, that if you are a juror in this case you will judge this case…. putting these newsreports out of your mind?”

Juror: “I cannot promise. I will tell you I will use my best judgment.”

Judge: “Really, I need a promise.”

The juror could not.

He’s been excused.

3:20 p.m. Questions, Questions and More Questions

The jury pool has shrunk somewhat. Judge Mollway is dealing with a pool of 36 at the moment, with others waiting in the wings.

After some lessons from the judge about the rule of law — and the importance of a defendant’s presumption of innocence — we’ve moved on to questions, lots of them.

Potential jurors are being asked about past jury service. About a half-dozen of them said they’ve been on juries before. None on a grand jury.

Sued another or been sued?

Any immediate family worked for a law enforcement agency?

All questions get at whether potential jurors’ past experiences would impair their ability to be fair.

“This trial will involve testimony by law enforcement,” Mollway said.

One potential juror talks about being stopped a lot by police officers while living out of a van with her family in New Mexico. She pledges to do her best to be fair.

1.50 p.m. What It Takes To Be a Juror

Snippets of the back-and-forth between Judge Mollway and the jurors:

  • Ability to sit for 1.5 hours at a time in between breaks
  • Good hearing (one alternate described his grasp of the conversation as ‘intermittent. He was excused.)
    *The ability to stay awake

“I have a tendency to doze off if I sit, like, in an office kind of thing. Most of the time we’re active out in the field,” said one man.

Mollway: “That will mean the attorneys have the job of keeping you engaged.”

After excusing a woman who is the primary caretaker of a 5-year-old son, Mollway pointed out that even when excused, jurors could be called for another trial.

“This is the best one…” The whole room laughed.

12:00 p.m. ‘Look Like You Are At a Karaoke Bar’

More than 60 jurors are in the courtroom.

The group is a variety of races, but persons of Asian descent appear to outnumber Caucasians. The majority appear to be middle-aged or older — not as many 20- and 30-somethings in the pool.

Most men are wearing aloha shirts and polo shirts. A few are wearing a T-shirt and slippers. The women are mostly dressed business casual.

The judge is asking jurors if they know any of the witnesses. Answer so far as been no.

Responses by the jurors are directed into a microphone that’s being passed around. But the judge warns that using it takes a special touch:

“These are your taxpayer dollars at work — and this mic is pretty temperamental,” Mollway said. “You have to look like you are at a Karaoke Bar and that you’re about to entertain us.”

Jurors chuckled.

10:55 a.m. Hourly Workers, Physical Therapy, and an Upcoming MRI

Thanks to a canceled case in another court room, the Aloun Farms trial has even more jurors to choose from: 111 in total.

Among the folks excused: a special ed teacher, an hourly worker for whom the trial would present an “extreme financial hardship.” Another person said he has thrice weekly physical therapy and an upcoming MRI.

Mike Sou’s attorney, Thomas Otake, raised a point about excusing so many people who have hourly jobs. The court pays a juror fee of $40 a day.

Judge Mollway says she’s inclined to excuse those jurors because those people may be so worried about their financial situation that they won’t pay close attention as the trial drags on.

10:10 Jurors = Piles of Papers, For the Moment

Court’s still in recess, and five lawyers are huddled over an inch-thick stack of juror questionnaires.

The government and defense are vetting jurors who have said they can’t serve on the jury because:

  • Financially they can’t afford to be in trial for weeks or
  • They’ve seen some media coverage of the case

The two sides are trying to come to agreement on who can be excused.

9:45 a.m. Speak Isan?

Court’s in recess, but earlier there was some fuss raised about the court translator.

Thomas Bienert, Alec Sou’s lawyer, was concerned about the chosen court-certified translator for the trial. He’s worried her translations won’t be accurate, in part because she was the same woman who acted as interpreter in FBI interviews of the alleged victims.

The defense also hired her during sentencing when Thai witnesses were called on the Sou brothers’ behalf. Worth nothing it was a whole different defense team back then. (The brothers’ former attorneys Howard Luke and Eric Seitz are on a 64-person witness list the defense submitted to the judge.)

But turns out it’s tough to find someone who knows Isan, the northeastern Thai dialect the laborers speak. The government has a second translator, but he lives in Utah and is only available for one day this week.

Judge Mollway says she hears the defense’s concern.

But “I’m a judge, I can’t invent another interpreter who’s available for that trial,” Mollway said.

So unless Bienert can come up with another Isan speaker, they’re out of luck.

9:18 Two Jurors Already Excused

Still no jurors in the courtroom — Judge Mollway says she’s summoned 80 of them for the trial — but already two will be excused.

Right off the bat, Mike Sou’s lawyer, Thomas Otake, informs the judge that he has personal relationships with two named: “I personally know two of the jurors. One is a pretty good friend of mine.”

The other is an attorney he’s worked with in state court.

Both will be excused.

9:10 a.m. Ground Rules

Court’s in session. Judge Susan Oki Mollway is seated.

Couple of ground rules set from the get go, Mollway says.

“Witnesses are excluded from trial,” she says.

That means they can’t be in the courtroom to hear other witnesses testimony — not only by their physical presence, but also the functional equivalent of that, she says. All the attorneys in the case are instructed to let their witnesses know.

That would also, she said, “preclude them from reading minute-by-minute live blog accounts.”

8:55 a.m. Jurors in Waiting

Jurors have been in the house since 7:20 a.m. They’re all in another courtroom, waiting to be called in. The first two rows are reserved for jurors.

The two defendants, six lawyers and an FBI special agent are taking their seats. They wish to speak before the judge. Last minute issues to resolve, they say, before they bring in the jurors.

The brothers are both wearing aloha shirts. Alec Sou seems tense but is relaxed enough to chat with one of his attorneys. Mike Sou sits on his own.

About a half-dozen spectators are in the courtroom. Also in attendance are three journalists and Melissa Vincenty, a civil lawyer representing the alleged Thai victims. Several of her clients are on the government and defenses’ witness list.

Follow Civil Beat on Facebook and Twitter. You can also sign up for Civil Beat’s free daily newsletter.

About the Author

Comments