The defense attorney for former Honolulu prosecutor Katherine Kealoha, who faces a barrage of felony charges including conspiracy, obstruction of justice, bank fraud, identity theft and trafficking opioids, recently questioned whether her client was mentally capable to stand trial, according to newly released court records.

On Wednesday, U.S. District Court Judge J. Michael Seabright issued a ruling that unsealed more than a dozen documents that were initially filed under seal in the federal government’s case against Kealoha and her husband, Louis, who is Honolulu’s former police chief.

They are accused of framing her uncle, Gerard Puana, for the theft of their mailbox and enlisting the help of a covert unit of police officers to carry out the scheme.

Retired HPD Chief Louis Kealoha Katherine Kealoha leave District Court today.
Katherine Kelaoha, center, and her defense attorney, Cynthia Kagiwada, right, leave the federal courthouse in downtown Honolulu. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The couple has also been charged with a series of financial crimes that include stealing from children, family members and a number of local banks and credit lenders.

Earlier this month Katherine Kealoha and her brother, Rudolph Puana, were additionally indicted for running an opioid trafficking ring, a criminal enterprise she allegedly helped hide by abusing her position as a city prosecutor.

The newly released documents show that from September to December, Katherine Kealoha and her defense attorney, Cynthia Kagiwada, tried in secret to convince the court that Kealoha was suffering from a “mental disease or defect” that made her unable to understand the “nature and consequences” of the criminal proceedings against her.

The records, however, do not reveal what that condition might be that would make her incompetent.

Seabright had originally allowed the arguments over Kealoha’s mental state to play out behind closed doors, but reconsidered the confidentiality of those proceedings after a legal challenge from The Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest.

In his ruling, Seabright said that there was a First Amendment right of access to the documents, although he refused to release specific details of Kealoha’s medical history or information that would indicate what illness she was suffering or why she wouldn’t be competent to go to trial.

As a result, much of Kealoha’s argument to avoid standing trial remains obscured, as does the result of an independent psychiatrist’s evaluation of her mental state.

Kagiwada had argued that releasing any information about Kealoha’s mental state would hurt her right to a fair trial. 

But Seabright disagreed.

“Katherine Kealoha has not demonstrated that the presumption of access is overcome by the risk of an unfair trial resulting from pretrial publicity,” Seabright said. “Neither has Katherine Kealoha shown that the disclosures concerning the competency hearing would generate ‘deep and bitter prejudice through the entire community.’”

Those issues, he said, can be dealt with during the jury selection process for the upcoming conspiracy trial, currently set for March 18.

“Accordingly, Kealoha’s right to a fair trial is not overcome by the press and public’s First Amendment right to access,” Seabright said.

Seabright also pointed out in a footnote to his ruling that if it weren’t for the law center’s intervention the records likely would have remained sealed because “no party advanced, or attempted to advance, the public’s interest in access to these court proceedings.”

‘Ongoing And Relentless’ Media Coverage

The unsealed documents show how Kagiwada used the publicity surrounding the case to try to obscure Kealoha’s attempts to have herself declared incompetent. She worried that allowing discussion of her client’s mental competency to come out in public would be both a violation of her privacy and her right to a fair trial.

Kagiwada also expressed concern about the media coverage so far, saying it has been “ongoing and relentless.”

In particular, Kagiwada pointed to several excerpts from recent news articles in which lawyers — including Alexander Silvert, the defense attorney who initially represented Gerard Puana, and Michael Green, who represents Ransen Taito, another one of Kealoha’s alleged victims — provided commentary on the case as events unfolded.

“Not only has the publicity been extensive and relentless, but it is highly likely that any information regarding Ms. Kealoha’s mental health will subject her to further scrutiny and extensive publicity from this Greek chorus of legal experts in numerous media sources, both local and national,” Kagiwada said.

“Additionally, it is highly likely that additional publicity regarding Ms. Kealoha’s mental health will further taint the pool of potential jurors. In order to preserve Ms. Kealoha’s rights to privacy and a fair trial, the only alternative is to seal the motion for a competency examination as well as any competency hearings.”

In her September motion, Kagiwada noted that Kealoha was currently receiving treatment for a medical condition, and that it was unknown whether it would affect her mental competency.

“Without intervention the public would never have known that there was any question as to Katherine Kealoha’s competency to stand trial.” — Brian Black, Civil Beat Law Center

The court appointed a psychiatrist in November to perform an evaluation of Kealoha.

Government prosecutors asked the court if they could provide the psychiatrist with extra information that might “assist in her evaluation” and “may bear upon the question of Defendant’s competence,” but that request was denied.

On Dec. 13, Magistrate Judge Richard Puglisi held a closed-door hearing with Kagiwada, Kealoha and Michael Wheat, the special prosecutor from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Diego who’s leading the government’s public corruption investigation.

The minutes from that hearing show it lasted only 34 minutes and that Wheat left the room so Puglisi, Kagiwada and Kealoha could discuss the matter in private.

A day later, on Dec. 14, Puglisi issued a ruling saying Kealoha was competent to stand trial, and in fact seemed to have all of her faculties.

“During the competency hearing, the Court observed that Defendant Kealoha was focused on the proceedings and did not appear distracted or disengaged,” Puglisi said. “Furthermore, Defendant Kealoha interacted with her counsel in a calm, responsive, and appropriate manner during the hearing.”

He also referenced the psychiatrist’s examination, but that portion of his ruling was redacted.

Redactions in court records obscure the true nature of an illness that could have resulted in a judge declaring Katherine Kealoha was mentally incompetent to stand trial. 

The Public Must Be Vigilant

The court decided to unseal the records after a legal challenge from The Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest.

The law center’s executive director, Brian Black, had been advocating for more transparency in the case overall, and has challenged numerous attempts by the Kealohas, their co-defendants and the government to keep certain documents secret.

Civil Beat Law Center Attorney Brian Black
Brian Black is been working in the background to make sure the Kealoha case is as open as possible to the public. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

For the most part, Black has been successful, including with the latest decision to unseal portions of the court record related to Kealoha’s competency examination.

“These documents tell us more than what we knew before and illustrate why it’s important for the public to be vigilant in monitoring these cases and bringing their concerns about transparency to the court’s attention,” Black said.

“Without intervention the public would never have known that there was any question as to Katherine Kealoha’s competency to stand trial.”

Meanwhile, jury selection in Kealoha’s trial is set to begin March 18 and Seabright told attorneys in a court filing Thursday that the U.S. Marshal’s Service and the court clerk are concerned the federal courtroom is too small to accommodate what’s expected to be 400 prospective jurors plus the media and general spectators.

Not only is the court facility going to be a tight fit, he said, but there’s likely not enough parking around the building for everyone.

He is proposing to move jury selection to the Neal Blaisdell Center’s Pikake Room.

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