UPDATED: 8/8/11 3:15 p.m.
Jurors in the Aloun Farms human trafficking case were stunned by the mid-trial dismissal of all charges Thursday, but said it made sense given that the prosecution had put up a weak case.
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.”
“Let’s put it this way. We hadn’t heard all the evidence, but it’s just that I felt at the outset, the government didn’t do a good job presenting its case,” said Mun Ching, 62, manager of a Honolulu luxury department store.
“I thought it was embarrassing how many mistakes (the prosecutors) made,” he said. “The defense did an outstanding job.”
Lawyers with the Department of Justice in Washington D.C. made the decision after reviewing documents provided by the defense on Friday.
“After thoroughly reviewing this information, the government determined that it cannot meet its burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt,” the Department said in a statement Thursday.
The brothers were charged in an alleged human trafficking scheme to keep 44 Thai farm workers as indentured laborers on their farm. They faced 12 felony counts including five counts of forced labor, one count of forced labor conspiracy, two counts of document servitude, one count of visa fraud conspiracy, two counts of harboring an illegal alien for financial gain, and one obstruction of justice count. If found guilty, they each faced up to 20 years in prison.
The trial was the second for the brothers, who initially pleaded guilty in January 2010 to conspiring to commit forced labor.
The Sous signed sworn statements admitting that they told the workers that they were not free to leave the farm and would be deported if they were disobedient. But at their sentencing hearing in July 2010, Chief U.S. District Judge Susan Oki Mollway threw out their plea deal after it appeared the defendants didn’t understand what they were pleading to.
The brothers’ trial this year has been marked by stunning developments.
On Tuesday, lead prosecutor Susan French admitted before the judge that she had misstated the law in front of the grand jury that indicted the brothers. She was taken off the case later that day for unspecified health reasons. The prosecution asked for a delay so new attorneys could be sent from Washington to present the case, but the judge rejected the request.
Thursday’s dismissal of all the charges was a bombshell. But for the jury, the prosecution was already fighting a losing battle.
Jurors who spoke to Civil Beat were consistent in saying that the prosecution seemed frazzled and unprepared while the defense seemed strong. Several said they were happy the Sous were let go and felt sorry for them.
Outside the courtroom, the Sous and their lawyers lined up and shook hands with the jurors as they left the judge’s chambers. Many of the jurors smiled warmly at the Sous, some stopped to chat.
For at least two jurors, the pivotal point came Wednesday during cross-examination of Matee Chowsanitphon, Thai recruiter turned key government witness.
Defense lawyer Thomas Bienert told the witness that French was wrong when she told him in front of the grand jury that it was against federal law for him to accept recruitment fees from the workers in 2004.
“The witness, he was honest, and that was kind of disturbing to me that the Department of Justice can do things like that to someone,” said Frankie Maitland, 56, of Ewa.
Juror Kenneth Kami agreed.
“I think that was one of the prosecution’s largest downfalls,” said the 64-year-old postal worker from Honolulu.
The jury of nine men and three women came mostly from Oahu. They looked like Hawaii — some part Hawaiian, part-Asian and part-Filipino. Only one juror appeared to be Caucasian.
Four of the jurors came from blue collar backgrounds. At least two jurors worked for law enforcement or had children who are in law enforcement. A third worked for the National Guard.
Here’s a rundown of the jurors’ reactions to the case:
44 years old, of Honolulu, sales manager for the Honolulu Police Relief Association
“We were all surprised, we were really surprised,” he said of the charges being dropped. “A lot of us would have liked it to go on further because it was a really interesting case. We were hoping they would at least let us see and hear from the witnesses.”
“I thought (the trial) was pretty one-sided. The defense was doing a good job of getting their points across. The prosecution seemed a little unorganized. I’m not sure if it would have been a different story if they had the original bunch of investigators and prosecutors. They were struggling through the process.”
An example, he said, of the prosecution’s struggles: “When Judge (Susan Oki) Mollway had to assist the prosecution with some of their questions. She was basically asking the questions for the prosecution sometimes. I thought, wow.”
64-years-old, of Honolulu, U.S. Postal Service maintenance specialist
“The prosecution, the way they went about it, they weren’t prepared, period.”
On the prosecution’s misstatements to the grand jury: “I think that kind of threw everything out of whack.”
Willard Sam Fong
63-years-old, of Papakolea, retired public school teacher
“It’s hard when the prosecution didn’t present their facts in a really organized manner. It wasn’t very coherent. The defense was very consistent and concise. I was able to keep the facts in order,” he said.
“That makes a difference for my interest. If I’m confused, then I’m going to have reasonable doubt.”
“When the government presented their statement, I saw a gloomy picture. Then when the defense presented theirs, I thought maybe not.”
He was not impressed with any of the government’s three witnesses, especially the FBI agent.
“The FBI agent did not go investigate the farm, didn’t know if there were any fences (around the property), didn’t even stop to observe, didn’t even look! At least go look.”
Alternate juror, 56-years-old, of Ewa, commercial diver
“I thought it was lopsided toward the defense. It’s not over ’til it’s over, but what the prosecution presented was kind of weak,” he said.
“I’m not glad or not in favor of the two brothers,” he said. “But it seemed like (the prosecution) wasn’t prepared. Maybe if they were prepared, it’d be a different story.”
66-years-old, of Honolulu, executive director of the Hawaii Bankers Association
Asked about the dropped charges: “I was very surprised, definitely. It was a shock to come so early in the trial.”
“The defense had put on a strong case at the beginning of the trial…I would assume the prosecution was building up its case.”
42-years-old, of Mililani, dental hygienist
“The prosecution seemed very unorganized. They didn’t have their facts together. I think they were realizing they didn’t have much to go on,” she said. “It’s almost like the government had no case. They jumped on something they didn’t have the facts for.”
“The defense was very organized and very strong. You can only go on what’s presented.”
“I felt sorry for the Sou brothers,” she said. “I felt the prosecution had no business to even bring up this trial.”
“You just hear so many one-sided things, and like the defense said, there’s two sides to every story. It seemed like (the Sou brothers) tried to do things the right way and hire local workers,” she said.
Alternate juror from Kailua, runs Comforting Hands Senior Care
“I’m glad it ended the way it did.”
“I didn’t think the prosecution had a strong case. If they did, they did not present it.”
Honolulu resident, hospitality industry employee
“They seemed really stressed out,” she said of the prosecution team.
“I feel happy for the Sou brothers.”
Alternate juror, 49-years-old, from Kauai, plant manager for Oceanic Time Warner
“It was a surprise to come this early. But we kind of had a feeling that something was up. Everything was sort of cleared off the prosecution’s desk. The projectors were put away and off to the side; usually it’s there from the day before. I think we all took notice of that.
“Obviously, there was a lot of information that still needed to come up, but the government was obviously struggling.”
“The defense came out very strong.”
Honolulu resident and retired Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard supervisor
“When we went in the courtroom this morning, nobody was really there. Something was up. The announcement still took me by surprise.”
“We just started getting some of the facts, but we just scratched the surface. I hadn’t formed an opinion yet one way or the other.”
“The government seemed a little bit — not focused as well as they should have been.”
Regarding the lead prosecutor taken off the case: “Basically this was her case. I imagine it was pretty distressing for her. I’ve been in situations where unexpected things happen, but you just have to pick up and keep going.”