Transparency is a hallmark of the American justice system, a characteristic that — Guantánamo aside — sets us apart from many other societies.
But journalists doing stories on terror suspects might have more success in obtaining information about those cases than Civil Beat has had in the case of Roger Christie, the Hilo marijuana minister awaiting trial on federal drug charges.
Christie ran a THC Ministry in Hilo for a decade before being arrested July 8, 2010, on federal charges of conspiring to manufacture, distribute and possess marijuana. Since then, he has spent his time awaiting trial in the beige stone Honolulu Federal Detention Center.
I wanted to find out why Christie is still in lockup. But it wasn’t as easy as you might think.
Messages to both the the federal attorneys representing and defending Christie have not been returned. Meanwhile, the warden running the prison where Christie is detained won’t let me visit him.
Despite several inquiries over a number of weeks, Assistant U.S. Attorney Beverly Sameshima, who is reported to be handling aspects of the case, has not responded to my inquiries.
Nor has First Assistant Federal Defender Alexander Silvert, who has been assigned to defend Christie.
The difficulty in reaching the U.S. Attorney has been compounded by the fact that their main telephone line in Honolulu was on the fritz for a spell.
So, I hiked on down to the federal building in early December and left a hand-written note and a business card for Sameshima.
I also emailed another assistant U.S. attorney, Michael Kawahara. That email went out Dec. 2. No response.
This Monday, with the phone system restored, I left a message for the U.S. attorney herself, Florence Nakakuni.
No word back yet.
In addition to trying to reach the attorneys involved with the Christie case, I’ve pushed to speak to him directly.
Christie’s fiancée, Share St. Cyr, told me that only blood relatives could visit him at the Honolulu detention center, although she has been allowed to email Christie and speak with him on the phone. I have no way of knowing if that’s true, since neither the federal attorney, his federal defender or prison officials will call me back.
In fact, the phone system for the detention center is not user-friendly, and I had no luck getting through to anyone. I tried an email contact for the prison’s public information officer posted on the detention center’s website but hit a similar dead end.
Finally, I called the Federal Bureau of Prisons in Washington, D.C., where I was advised to — are you ready for this? — send a fax to the Honolulu warden, Bobby Meeks.
That I did, on Dec. 8. On Dec. 12 I heard from the prison PIO, Patricia Ocasio, via email. Here’s what she wrote, unedited:
Good Afternoon Mr. Blair:
We have received your request to interview inmate Roger, Chiristie, who is housed at our Federal Detention Honolulu, Hawaii. Our media contact guidelines are governed by our Program Statement 1480.05, Media Contacts. The purpose and scope of this P.S. is that “The Bureau of Prisons recognized the desirability of establishing a policy that affords the public information about its operations via the news media,.
Representatives of the news media may visit institutions for the purpose of preparing reports about the institution, programs, and activities. It is not the intent of this rule to provide publicity for an inmate or special privileges for the news media, but rather to insure a better informed public. The Bureau of Prisons also has a responsibility to protect the privacy and other rights of inmates and members of the staff. Therefore, an interview in an institution must be regulated to insure the orderly and safe operation of the institution.
The media request in reference does not reflect the scope or purpose of our program. If you would like to read the entirety of Program Statement 1480.05, Media Contacts, please visit our website at; www.bop.gov.
If you have any further questions or concerns please do not hesitate to contact me.
Thank you and have a wonderful day!
While I was waiting to hear from the prison, I decided to pay a visit in person.
On Dec. 8 I drove to the Federal Detention Center, which is located near Honolulu International Airport and Hickam Air Force Base. I parked my car in the facility’s lot and began looking for a vantage point to take a photo for my story.
A parking lot guard, who was armed, stopped me from doing that, however. He told me it was a federal crime to take a picture of the prison.
“What if I just walk across the street and take a photo from there?” I asked the guard.
“We would have to confiscate your camera and film,” he replied.
I took the picture anyway.
(Of note: There’s also a photo of the detention center on the detention center’s website.)
I did manage to talk to the guard inside the prison’s entrance, who confirmed that Warden Meeks received my request for an interview with Roger Christie.
There is a way to learn a great deal about criminal cases like Christie’s: PACER, which stands for Public Access to Court Electronic Records.
However, the service isn’t free; visitors are charged 8 cents a page view.
That may not sound like a lot to pay, but it can add up. In the case of USA v. Christie at al. (case No. 1:10-cr-00384-LEK), there are over 320 separate files to examine in just the “History/Documents” section alone.
It’s been worth it, though. For example, in those documents the U.S. Attorney explains in detail why Christie should be denied bail because he’s considered by the authorities to be a danger to the community.
I also learned the trial is scheduled for Feb. 28.
Despite the lack of help from the feds, I still hope to have a story on the Christie case. I emailed questions to his fiancée, who sent them to Christie.
But, she says, he’s having difficulties emailing them back.
(St. Cyr also told me to be careful with our phone conversations, saying the lines are tapped — something quite plausible, given that authorities tapped Christie’s phone for several years and she’s a co-defendant.)
So, I’m waiting for Christie’s responses to come via the U.S. Postal Service … which is suffering its own delivery problems of late. Once I get them I’ll do a story.