An Oahu grand jury absolved Honolulu police Sgt. Darren Cachola of any criminal wrongdoing for lack of evidence after he was suspected of beating up his girlfriend in a Waipahu restaurant in September.

But even if the grand jury had indicted Cachola there is a good chance he never would have been convicted of a crime.

I sat down with Honolulu Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro for an hour Friday to find out more about the problems of prosecuting domestic violence cases.

Keith Kaneshiro

Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Keith Kaneshiro

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Kaneshiro says only about 5 percent to 10 percent of suspects charged with misdemeanor domestic abuse on Oahu have to stand trial. That’s because Oahu’s courts are congested with more domestic violence cases than the courts can handle. And because of the court congestion, more and more first time or less violent defendants are allowed to plead out to lesser charges.

When suspected abusers do stand trial, Kaneshiro says an estimated 90 percent are acquitted.

Kaneshiro says the low jury trial conviction rate is because prosecutors often are working with plaintiffs who become uncooperative in the courtroom, recanting their original accusation or minimizing what happened or even looking lovingly at their batterers.

Kaneshiro says, “Juries don’t like domestic violence cases. They don’t like recanting victims. They wonder why such cases were ever brought to trial.”

Juries don’t understand the dynamics of why a woman would stay with someone who is hurting her.

Kaneshiro says abused women recant for understandable reasons mostly having to do with fear.

Many suspects try to bully and intimidate their beaten household member into dropping their complaints.

Most of the victims lack the economic or emotional means to move out. They have to continue living in the same violent environment with the angry suspect. They are often reliant on their abuser for financial support.

And Kaneshiro says, “Some women victims will blame themselves for what happened.  They have very low self-esteem.”

Kaneshiro also cites another reason victims want their complaints dropped. “I’ll be frank. Domestic abuse cases take too long to resolve.”

An Overwhelming Backlog

Oahu’s courts are backlogged with hundreds of misdemeanor domestic abuse cases.  Because of the courtroom congestion, many domestic abuse defendants can get their cases dismissed under a court procedure know as Rule 48.  It says if a defendant does not get a trial within six months of their arrest,  the defendant’s attorney can ask for dismissal.

Kaneshiro continues to push for more courtrooms to handle the burgeoning backlog.  Currently only two courtrooms at District Court are open for misdemeanor domestic violence jury trials.

Kaneshiro has been obsessed with prosecuting domestic violence offenders for more than 20 years.  But once upon a time, he was almost indifferent to the crime.

Kaneshiro says when he began working as a deputy prosecutor in the 1980s, domestic violence was not treated seriously by law enforcement. It was considered a private matter.

He says there wasn’t even a separate state statute then to address the crime of beating up a family or household member.  Suspected abusers in those days were charged with assault. A victim had to take a complaint to the prosecutor.

Kaneshiro says he and the other deputy prosecutors were relieved when domestic abuse victims had second thoughts and asked them to drop their cases. “Less work for us,” he said.

But Kaneshiro’s attitude changed after a victim whose case he had agreed to drop was brutally murdered by her suspected abuser.

Juries don’t understand the dynamics of why a woman would stay with someone who is hurting her.

Kaneshiro says, “Three weeks after I dropped the woman’s case, her abuser shot her dead in a telephone booth in Chinatown.”

“If I had insisted she pursue her complaint and done more to help her she still might be alive,” he said.

When he was elected Honolulu Prosecutor in 1989, one of his initial acts was to institute a “no drop” policy for domestic abuse victims.

This “no drop” policy has helped add to the court congestion.

“The courts were not sympathetic,” says Kaneshiro.

But that did not sway him.

“I made a decision to protect the victims who had been silenced by their abusing spouses. Domestic violence is not a private matter.  Violence is violence and it is a public matter.”

Kaneshiro now wants to make sure domestic abuse cases advance in court even when a victim refuses to testify because she’s afraid.

He has instituted mandatory training for all 100 deputy prosecutors in how to convince juries a crime has been committed when the complaining witness recants or keeps insisting  there was no serious harm.

Since 2013, the prosecutors have attended five different sessions on Saturdays on topics such how to better urge statements out of reluctant victim witnesses and how to proceed with a case even after a victim recants.

Kaneshiro says the prosecution of domestic abuse suspects would be easier if the Honolulu Police Department improved how it investigates suspected abuse.

He wishes every patrol officer had a camera to photograph a domestic abuse victims’ injuries and the damage to the household within minutes after the officer arrived on the scene.

He says even though patrol officers are not investigators, each beat officer should get special training in how to collect evidence when there’s a suspected domestic abuse,  and on  how to better and more quickly interview neighbors and other witnesses; also to be sure to make note of a victim’s excited or  terrified utterances before the abuser urges the victim to say nothing happened.

Information gathered in the first five or ten minutes after an officer arrives can be critical to help prosecute even when a victim later refuses to testify.

Ideas That Could Help

Kaneshiro has an even larger project underway.  He says the city has finally appropriated $6 million dollars for a Family Justice Center where reluctant witnesses in cases of extremely violent domestic abuse can come to live for two years or more.

The city has purchased an apartment building for the center in Makiki.

When the apartment building is remodeled and made secure, it will have 20 one-bedroom units where battered women can live safely while they can rebuild their self-esteem, receive job training skills and garner enough strength to testify against their abusers.

Kaneshiro says other cities have Family Justice Centers but Honolulu’s will be the first in the country run by a prosecutor’s office with a direct law enforcement aim of helping women aid in the prosecution of their abusers to stop them from harming them and others in the future.

There is still another way to bring more spouse and  household abusers to justice.

That would be to ask the Legislature to create a new crime of petty misdemeanor domestic abuse. A domestic abuse suspect charged with a lesser crime of petty misdemeanor domestic abuse would not be able to request a jury trial.

Petty misdemeanor cases would go before judges rather than juries.   Law enforcement officials say judges are more savvy about knowing when a victim has been abused and better understand the reluctance of a victim to tell the whole story.

But Kaneshiro says he would never support a lesser version of a crime he considers abhorrent.

I dont want to send a message that in any way reduces the seriousness of domestic violence,” he says.

UPDATE: After this column was publish, state court officials raised concerns that some of Kaneshiro’s statements were inaccurate.

The state court systemʻs latest statistics support Kaneshiroʻs statement that very few Oahu misdemeanor domestic violence cases make it to jury or bench trials. The Judiciaryʻs statistics show that of 1,007 misdemeanor domestic violence cases brought to the courts by the prosecutor in FY 2014, 54 or about 5 percent went to trial in the 2014 calendar year.

The Judiciaryʻs statistics also support what Kaneshiro’s contention that most misdemeanor domestic abuse defendants taken to trial are acquitted. Judiciary spokeswoman Tammy Mori says out of 54 misdemeanor domestic violence jury or bench trials this calendar year, two defendants or 3.7 percent was found guilty.

However, Mori says there is not a  court backlog when it comes to domestic violence misdemeanor trials.

Mori says, “The courts are willing to take as many cases as the prosecutorʻs office wants to take to court on misdemeanor domestic violence charges.”

She says only 32 cases in 2014 were dismissed because of Rule 48 (the right to dismissal if there is no trial six months after a suspectʻs arrest).

Kaneshiro still insists there is a backlog. He says, “There are not enough courtrooms and there is not enough court time available to try all the cases. Thatʻs considered a backlog.”

Kaneshiro says the courts have been urging him to seek plea agreements because of court congestion and he says even with the numbers of defendants pleading out there is still not enough court time.

Kaneshiro says the Judiciary’s statistics do not show many cases being dismissed because of Rule 48 because the dismissals are offered by the court before the six month limit is up.

 

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