Keith Kaneshiro has spent decades taking on some of Hawaii’s toughest criminals while working as a city prosecutor.
Over the years, Kaneshiro developed a hardline approach to crime and punishment that some critics say focuses too much on locking up bad guys instead of on rehabilitation.
But Honolulu’s prosecuting attorney has a softer side that’s not all about putting people behind bars.
Check out this photo of him pushing his two papillons, KC and Ellie, in a baby stroller during a 2012 charity event for the Hawaiian Humane Society.
Kaneshiro has taken his affinity for animals into the courtroom. In 2010, shortly after he was elected to his second term, he acquired Pono, a black Labrador retriever, to provide emotional support to traumatized crime victims and witnesses, especially children, who might have difficulties opening up to investigators.
This year, Kaneshiro convinced the Hawaii Legislature, along with his counterparts on neighbor islands, to pass a new bill that would allow Pono and other dogs like her into the state’s courtrooms during judicial proceedings in which emotionally sensitive witnesses testify.
He also said he has allocated considerable resources prosecuting animal cruelty cases, including one particularly disturbing event in which more than a dozen nesting albatrosses were slaughtered and their eggs smashed. That case is ongoing, although his office refuses to talk about it because it involves juveniles.
“What I do when I campaign is I emphasize what I’ve done, and people will either agree or disagree with that.” — Keith Kaneshiro
“There are a lot of animals in the community and they need that protection,” Kaneshiro said. “The FBI did a study and they found that serial killers start off as abusing animals, so we know that people who are cruel to animals are cruel to other people.”
Animals were one of several topics Kaneshiro discussed in a recent interview with Civil Beat. He is seeking another four-year term as Honolulu’s prosecuting attorney. He has a budget of $24 million, and is in charge of about 100 deputy prosecutors and 170 support staff members.
A charter amendment on the Nov. 8 ballot would give the prosecuting attorney control over that budget. Right now the mayor can decide to withhold funds after the budget is approved by the City Council.
Kaneshiro’s opponent, Anosh Yaqoob, is a relative unknown and has never worked as a prosecutor.
But Kaneshiro says he’s not taking anything for granted. He wants voters to know that in the past four years he’s followed through on his promises and stuck up for vulnerable victims — be they pets, children or the elderly — who “need a voice in the criminal justice system.”
Not everyone agrees.
Kaneshiro considers one of his biggest achievements to be the upcoming opening of the Honolulu Family Justice Center, a 21-unit apartment complex that aims to give victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and sex trafficking a haven to escape their abusers.
Often victims of these crimes are reluctant to testify. Kaneshiro said the center will help to remove those apprehensions by providing a place to live and receive support.
It was originally a 24-unit apartment building that was renovated using $6.2 million in city funds with an additional $400,000 coming from a federal grant and a donation from the Atherton Family Foundation. The building will have space for prosecutors and police, and is protected by 6-foot high walls, 29 security cameras and a laser alarm system.
“It’s an important piece for us prosecuting these crimes,” Kaneshiro said. “We need to give (victims) an opportunity so that they can leave environments of violence and have a place to go. Some of the things that prevent people from leaving are financial. They don’t have the money to pay rent. They don’t have a job. They don’t have the money to live. We provide that for them.”
The Family Justice Center’s first official tenant is expected to move in next month.
Nanci Kreidman, chief executive officer of the Domestic Violence Action Center, is skeptical.
While she admits that transitional housing is in short supply for victims of domestic violence and other crimes, she said there is concern in the victims’ advocacy community that Kaneshiro’s vision is too closely tied to prosecuting criminals rather than helping those who have been abused.
“I would love to do it if we had a better working relationship with Keith,” Kreidman said. “I know everybody is ecstatic about the Family Justice Center. I’m not quite sure that its contributions to the continuum of community services is appropriate to meet the need.”
Kreidman said that the expectation is that victims of crimes have to “earn services” by cooperating with prosecutors. That’s not always realistic, she said, because many victims of domestic violence haven’t had good experiences with the criminal justice system, either because they saw previous cases dismissed or pleaded down to lesser charges.
“Having a Family Justice Center which is under the auspices of the prosecutor’s office is quite different from a community-based organization,” Kreidman said.
He even called for an expansion of Hawaii’s prison system to help ease overcrowding in the mid-1990s when he was appointed by then-Gov. Ben Cayetano as the director of the state’s Department of Public Safety, which oversees the corrections system.
Jack Tonaki, who heads the Hawaii Office of the Public Defender, said he’s often disagreed with Kaneshiro and his predecessor, Peter Carlisle, over strict mandatory sentencing, particularly as it related to drug crimes.
But Tonaki said it’s also difficult to fault Kaneshiro or Carlisle for their attitudes since they were part of a national push in the 1990s for prosecutors and judges to dole out stricter sentences. Instead, Tonaki likes to focus on where he and Kaneshiro can agree.
“We argue against each other in court, but we’re able to sit down and discuss a lot of these issues respectfully,” Tonaki said. “Many other branches of government could take some lessons from that.”
Tonaki points to recent efforts supported by Kaneshiro to create a community court system to reduce the backlog of cases that have been caused by strict enforcement of Honolulu’s laws that target the homeless, such as the sit-lie ban, trespassing and park closure rules.
The concept is that these minor, nonviolent offenses would be adjudicated quickly through a “mobile court” so that they don’t clog up the system. Under the plan, defendants would be offered the chance to do community service or enroll in a drug-treatment program, for instance, to avoid criminal penalties, such as a fine or time in jail.
“It’s been good working with his office trying to help these people,” Tonaki said. “I think that he realized that this approach to criminalizing the homeless problem has really backfired on everyone, and we’re trying to change that.”
Kaneshiro’s office has seen its fair share of embarrassments, from its failed prosecution of U.S. State Department special agent Christopher Deedy for murder to an ongoing corruption investigation involving one of his top criminal prosecutors.
Kaneshiro often shrugs off the controversies, saying in his soft-spoken, raspy voice that others are to blame for the perceived shortcomings and that any negative publicity has been the result of media hype.
He defended his office’s actions in a high-profile gambling case that began in 2014 with a 414-count criminal indictment that included allegations of racketeering and money laundering. It was touted in the press as one of the largest criminal indictments in Hawaii’s history.
But a state Circuit Court judge tossed the case over prosecutorial misconduct during secret grand jury proceedings, something that Kaneshiro denied took place.
His office secured a second indictment earlier this year, but charges against the top three defendants were again thrown out — this time by a different judge — because prosecutors had taken too long to bring the case to trial.
“Getting guys convicted is something positive, but it’s not something that’s necessary,” Kaneshiro said.
He noted that dozens of gaming machines were seized and taken off the streets as a result of the prosecution. That’s important, he said, because illegal gaming is tied to more serious crimes, such as the recent shooting death of Tara Tevaga in a Chinatown game room.
“You have robberies, you have extortion and you have murders,” Kaneshiro said. “You go back and look at the environment before we started these cases. Gaming was proliferating throughout the community openly and nothing was being done about it.”
He said recent crackdowns on game rooms may have driven Honolulu’s gambling operations deeper underground, which can make enforcement more difficult.
Kaneshiro bristled at recent criticism of him for opposing a state legislative bill that explicitly banned sex trafficking in Hawaii. For the past several years, Hawaii had been described the only state in the country that had not banned sex trafficking.
He claimed Hawaii already had such a law on the books under “promoting prostitution.” He opposed the bill this year because he believed the language related to minors involved in prostitution could make it easier for them to be targeted by traffickers.
“We put seven pimps in prison before this new law got passed,” Kaneshiro said. “There was no need to change the law if it was working, but eventually the law got changed.”
Those convictions came in just the past few years. One of those cases involving two defendants was recently overturned by the Hawaii Intermediate Court of Appeals. The prosecuting attorney’s office is appealing that ruling.
Kaneshiro didn’t want to talk much about his opponent, Yaqoob, whose main campaign pitch hinges on the fact that he is not Kaneshiro. Yaqoob, who is of Pakistani descent, had filed a U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint against Kaneshiro and his office several years ago after being denied a job as a prosecutor.
Kaneshiro acknowledged Yaqoob’s complaint but didn’t discuss the allegations beyond it, saying it was dismissed after the EEOC found that there was no evidence of discrimination in the prosecuting attorney’s hiring practices.
“I don’t have any opinion on my opponent, and I don’t talk about my opponent,” Kaneshiro said. “Everybody has the right to run for office. What I do when I campaign is I emphasize what I’ve done, and people will either agree or disagree with that. I want them to vote on my record.”
Yaqoob has lodged specific criticisms against Kaneshiro, including concerns over his public stance on dismissals of the gambling indictments and his opposition to sex trafficking legislation that was widely supported by advocates.
Yaqoob has also raised questions about Kaneshiro’s handling of an ongoing grand jury investigation into Katherine Kealoha, who is a supervising prosecuting attorney in the career criminal division.
The U.S. Department of Justice has been investigating Kealoha and her husband, Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha, for more than a year for possible corruption, abuse of power and civil rights violations stemming from allegations that they framed a family member for the theft of their mailbox and inappropriately used law enforcement resources.
Yaqoob said the “appearance of impropriety” has tainted the prosecuting attorney’s office as well as the Honolulu Police Department, and that if he were prosecutor he would have asked Katherine Kealoha to step aside, at least temporarily, as the federal government conducted its grand jury investigation.
“I think that maybe a leave of absence might be important,” Yaqoob said. “If it was me, I don’t think I would have hired that person in the first place.”
Kealoha did not respond to a request for comment.
While Kaneshiro doesn’t have many words for his current opponent, he doesn’t hold back when talking about his predecessor, Carlisle, who was Honolulu’s top prosecutor from 1997 to 2010. Carlisle won the 1996 election for prosecutor after Kaneshiro decided not to run after completing two four-year terms.
At that time, Kaneshiro said he left the office in good standing and felt that criminal prosecutions were on the right track. But he says Carlisle quickly eroded all the work he had built up during his tenure.
Kaneshiro also takes offense at Carlisle’s frequent comments to the press that directly criticize how the office is currently being run.
“I wish that Peter Carlisle would run against me because he talks a lot about me,” Kaneshiro said.
Carlisle, a former mayor who lost his re-election bid in 2012, said he could “write a novel” if he were to list all his complaints about how Kaneshiro has performed as Honolulu’s top prosecutor. Carlisle said he considered Kaneshiro to be a micromanager, which can lead to more bureaucracy in an office that already struggles to manage a heavy caseload.
Carlisle also points to several personnel decisions that he believes show a lack of leadership, including those involving Katherine Kealoha and the hiring of former lawmaker Jon Riki Karamatsu as a prosecutor. Karamatsu was twice busted for driving under the influence, once in 2007 as a state representative and again in 2015 when he was working as a prosecutor.
Additionally, Carlisle blasted Kaneshiro for not prosecuting his own cases. The last time Kaneshiro prosecuted a criminal was in 2012 when he secured a 35-year prison sentence for a man who had set a house fire that killed a 97-year-old woman inside.
Kaneshiro said the prosecuting attorney’s office suffered under Carlisle’s watch for a number of reasons, most of which seem to relate to his personality.
He blamed Carlisle for the loss of state funds for the prosecuting attorney’s career criminal division, as well as prosecutorial lapses that led to numerous sexual assault cases stalling out because charges were not filed during the mandatory statute of limitations.
“When I came here there were a lot of things I had to do to put this office back into shape,” Kaneshiro said. “He really brought this office down. He was there for his own personal glory, not for the office.”
Carlisle did not specifically address Kaneshiro’s attacks. But the former mayor laughed when told about Kaneshiro’s comments about wanting to run against him, bringing up the last time the two went head-to-head in 2004. Carlisle won that race 58 percent to Kaneshiro’s 34 percent.