Inappropriate testimony from Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha caused a federal judge to declare a mistrial in what has become a high-profile case involving a mailbox stolen from his house and an ongoing family feud between his wife and her estranged uncle over money.
On Thursday, Kealoha was called to the witness stand to testify against Gerard Puana, his wife’s uncle who is also the man accused of stealing their mailbox the night of June 21, 2013.
It was only the first day of trial and Kealoha, who had traded in his uniform for a suit and tie, was just the second witness to testify in the case.
But it was his surprising answer to a question about how he was able to recognize Puana in fuzzy, black-and-white surveillance video that was taken from his house the night of the theft that caused U.S. District Court Judge Leslie Kobayashi to dismiss the jury and set a new trial date.
He said Puana looked the same as he did when he was arrested and convicted for breaking into a neighbor’s house, a response that caused federal public defender Alexander Silvert to slam his hands on the table and call for a mistrial.
Kobayashi described Kealoha’s answer as an unsolicited, “rogue” response that could prejudice the jury, even if she asked them to pretend they never heard it.
But Silvert said after the proceeding that he believes Kealoha intentionally sabotaged the trial in an attempt to protect his wife, Katherine Kealoha, a high profile city prosecutor.
Silvert also contends the Honolulu Police Department mishandled the mailbox case by withholding evidence and falsifying reports.
“I believe there is a lot of misconduct in this case on the part of HPD from the top to the bottom,” Silvert said. “There’s a lot more to learn. This is only the tip of the iceberg.”
Katherine Kealoha is Puana’s niece, and the two are currently involved in an acrimonious legal dispute. Puana and his 95-year-old mother sued Katherine Kealoha in March 2013, alleging she stole more than $150,000 from them.
Silvert said that a conviction against Puana in the mailbox case would give Katherine Kealoha a better chance of defending herself in the civil lawsuit.
“I believe that an officer of his stature, his years of service, knew perfectly well that he was not allowed to make that comment.” — Alexander Silvert, federal public defender
A loss in the civil case could have serious ramifications for Katherine Kealoha, Silvert said. Not only could she face sanctions from the Hawaii Office of Disciplinary Counsel, he said, but she could also lose her job and be placed under criminal investigation.
“If she’s found liable in the civil case then she stole money from an elderly lady,” Silvert said. “That’s not acceptable for an attorney.”
The Kealohas declined to comment on Thursday’s proceedings, saying through spokespersons they were advised not to talk by federal prosecutors.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Larry Tong, the lead prosecutor in the Puana case Thursday, also declined to comment, saying can’t he talk about pending litigation.
Thursday’s trial was a highly anticipated affair, if only because the police chief and his prosecutor wife were both expected to testify.
But the trial quickly turned conspiratorial as Silvert began laying the foundation for his defense.
He read from a letter Katherine Kealoha wrote to Puana’s mother about a year before the mailbox was stolen that said anyone who made false claims about her would “rue the day they decided to state these twisted lies.”
Silvert had also questioned the circumstances of Puana’s arrest, and eventual prosecution by the federal government.
The mailbox was reported stolen on June 22, 2013. Puana was arrested on June 29, 2013 in a church parking lot by a special detail of police officers that were part of an HPD crime reduction unit.
In all, eight officers were on the scene to arrest and transport Puana to jail.
It wasn’t until after the arrest that HPD contacted the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, something Silvert said should have happened much sooner. “They wanted to control the investigation on behalf of the Kealohas,” he said.
After the mistrial was declared, Silvert told reporters that Kealoha, who has been in law enforcement for nearly 32 years, should have known that what he was saying was out of line.
Silvert even asked Kobayashi if he could put the chief back on the witness stand to try to find out whether he revealed the information on purpose or if it was just a slip.
“The jury was not allowed to hear that evidence,” Silvert said. “And I believe that an officer of his stature, his years of service, knew perfectly well that he was not allowed to make that comment.”
Silvert stressed that serious questions need to be posed to Kealoha and his department about the handling of the case.
“The point is that now is the time to buckle down and investigate this thing as completely and thoroughly as possible.” — Peter Carlisle, former Honolulu mayor and prosecuting attorney
He said questioning should be directed by police commissioners — who can hire and fire the chief — the ethics commission and state lawmakers, who two months ago grilled Kealoha about an HPD sergeant caught on video repeatedly striking his girlfriend.
Former Honolulu mayor and prosecuting attorney Peter Carlisle agrees that there should be an increased level of scrutiny based on Kealoha’s actions in court.
He told Civil Beat that most witnesses are coached by prosecutors not to bring up inadmissible evidence, such as prior bad acts or the results of lie detector tests, during their testimony.
When it comes to police officers and other professional witnesses, he said, they should already know those rules.
“If you did that in front of a room of lawyers there would be an audible gasp,” Carlisle said of Kealoha’s testimony. “The point is that now is the time to buckle down and investigate this thing as completely and thoroughly as possible.”
The mailbox theft case has been delayed until May when a new jury will be selected. Silvert said he doesn’t expect the U.S. Attorney’s Office to drop the charges.