U.S. District Court Judge David Ezra heard closing arguments Tuesday in a wrongful conviction case involving the 1995 murder of Vilmar Cabaccang on Maui and allegations of police and prosecutorial misconduct.

Ezra said it was clear Maui authorities slipped up in their efforts to keep convicted killer Taryn Christian behind bars for a crime he says he didn’t commit. Christian says prosecutors and police misplaced evidence and failed to follow proper investigative procedures.

But Ezra also said he can’t give Christian another shot at freedom unless there’s proof those mistakes were more insidious or part of a concerted cover-up. That’s an incredibly high threshold, the judge said, and one that’s not easily met.

“The whole manner in which this case was handled and the evidence was handled was, to say the least, disconcerting,” Ezra said during Tuesday’s proceedings. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean it was fraud.”

“People have lied. People have mishandled and hidden evidence. This whole process has been poisoned from the very beginning.” — Gary Modafferi

He said that without a “smoking gun” it will be up to him to determine if there’s enough credible evidence to show that officials duped judges such as himself into making the decisions that they did.

Christian was convicted in 1997 of second-degree murder for the stabbing death of Cabaccang. Christian who was 19 at the time, was accused of killing the 23-year-old Cabaccang after a botched attempt to steal stereo equipment from his car.

Christian was sentenced to life in prison with a minimum 40 years, but he has proclaimed his innocence all along, arguing that he was the victim of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

He’s always said it was another man, James “Hina” Burkhart, who had fatally stabbed Cabaccang.

Taryn Christian, left, says he's innocent of the murder of Vilmar Cabaccang. He blames James Burkhart, right, for the killing. The composite sketch was created based on witness descriptions.

Taryn Christian, left, says he’s innocent of the murder of Vilmar Cabaccang. He blames James Burkhart, right, for the killing. The composite sketch was created based on witness descriptions.

Christian’s attorney, Gary Modafferi, and Maui County Deputy Corporation Counsel Moana Lutey each had about an hour to argue their cases Tuesday based on documents submitted over the summer.

Modafreri was joined by representatives from the Hawaii Innocence Project, which has taken on Christian’s case.

Lutey dismissed any claims that officials would intentionally try to sabotage Christian’s case as little more than “innuendo and various theories of conspiracy.”

She also said that many of the issues presented to the court have been dealt with already in the nearly two decades of proceedings that have taken place.

“None of this is new,” Lutey said. “There’s not one thing that been presented in this (hearing) that is new. … The point is we don’t get to keep relitigating this.”

But Ezra seemed to take particular interest in an eyewitness who testified during the criminal trial that he saw Christian walking away from the crime scene.

U.S. District Court Judge David Ezra is presiding in Taryn Christian's attempt to reopen his habeas corpus proceedings that he hopes will set him free.

U.S. District Court Judge David Ezra is presiding in Taryn Christian’s attempt to reopen his habeas corpus proceedings that he hopes will set him free.

U.S. District Court — Hawaii

Philip Schmidt heard Cabaccang’s screams from his apartment the night he was murdered and went outside to help. He now says he originally identified Burkhart in a photo lineup.

But that lineup as well as any associated police reports have disappeared along with other evidence that could have placed Burkhart at the scene.

Other items that have gone missing include surveillance video from a nearby gas station and bloodied shorts that Christian wanted to test for Burkhart’s DNA.

If any of that evidence could tie Burkhart to the crime scene, it could potentially undermine the entire case against Christian.

When he first appealed his case to the Hawaii Supreme Court, Christian said he should have been allowed to present witnesses who said Burkhart had confessed the murder to them.

He then took that argument to the federal courts, where Ezra ultimately ruled that Christian was entitled to a new trial so that those witness could testify.

If any of that evidence could tie Burkhart to the crime scene, it could potentially undermine the entire case against Christian.

But Maui County appealed Ezra’s ruling to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which overturned it on the grounds that the witnesses were not credible and there was no evidence proving Burkhart was near the crime scene.

Modafferi said that if Ezra finds that those decisions were based on fraudulent information it would open the chance to set Christian free.

“You have to show that there’s been some tampering with the integrity of the court’s process and I think we have clearly shown that,” Modafferi said. “People have lied. People have mishandled and hidden evidence. This whole process has been poisoned from the very beginning.”

Ezra said he expects to issue a written ruling in the next four to six weeks. He also said he expects his decision to be appealed.

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