A U.S. District Court judge in Hawaii has ruled the state cannot prosecute federal agent Christopher Deedy a third time for the Nov. 5, 2011, shooting death of Kollin Elderts.
The Hawaii Supreme Court ruled in November that Honolulu prosecutors could pursue a third trial against Deedy after two previous murder trials ended in deadlocked juries.
Deedy’s attorneys petitioned the federal courts to block the third trial, saying that pursuing a lesser charge of reckless manslaughter instead of murder would be tantamount to double jeopardy since such a count was considered and then dismissed during the first trial.
On Friday, U.S. District Court Judge Derrick Watson agreed, and issued a ruling that effectively blocks city prosecutors from pursuing a third criminal trial against the federal agent for reckless manslaughter, saying that it could not happen “without violating constitutional provisions.”
Hours later, the Honolulu Department of the Prosecuting Attorney announced it would appeal the ruling to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
“This case involves the unjustified killing of Kollin Elderts, a young Hawaii man,” the prosecutor’s office said in a statement. “It is our moral and ethical obligation to pursue all legal remedies.”
Deedy, a U.S. State Department agent, shot and killed Elderts inside a Waikiki McDonald’s in 2011 after a late-night argument.
Deedy was in Honolulu to provide diplomatic security for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. He was out drinking with friends the night he encountered Elderts, who was also under the influence.
The two got into an altercation that was caught on McDonald’s grainy, black-and-white surveillance video. At trial, jurors were asked to discern who was the aggressor, something that proved difficult since the images were jumpy and there was no sound.
Elderts’ death sparked protests in its immediate aftermath. It also played on the complicated dynamics between race and colonialism on the Hawaiian islands.
Deedy’s attorney, Thomas Otake, told reporters at a news conference that while he is pleased with the judge’s ruling, it has taken seven years to get to this day and that has taken a toll on both the Deedy and Elderts families.
“I just want to say although we’re very relieved by all of this, it is not a day of celebration,” Otake said.
He pointed out that for years the prosecuting attorney’s office rejected a possible manslaughter charge against Deedy and only filed it after losing the murder case.
“It wasn’t until they lost the murder case that the prosecutors changed their tune,” Otake said. “Thankfully Judge Watson saw it as we saw it.”
Otake said he informed Deedy of the ruling with a phone call to his client’s home in Virginia, where he continues to work for the State Department.
Otake said his client’s reaction was one of relief.
“It’s been seven long years,” he said.
A handful of people who support the Elderts family expressed their disappointment in Watson’s ruling as they gathered at Iolani Palace on Friday afternoon. But they also criticized the office of prosecuting attorney Keith Kaneshiro, for not seeking a manslaughter charge to begin with.
“His job is not to the victims, it’s to the government,” said Nonohe Botelho, whose own son Joel was killed in a separate incident seven years ago. “They hesitated from the very beginning.”
Kalamaoka’aina Niheu, a member of the group Justice for Kollin Elderts, said she had spoken to the Elderts family and they did not want to make a statement.
“They have gone through what I would say is very emotional trauma,” Niheu said. “He was the voice of their family.”
“I’m not commenting right now,” Jenell Elderts, Kollin’s mother, told Civil Beat.
Read Watson’s order here:
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