Honolulu criminal defense attorney Rustam Barbee wants to silence one of Hawaii’s most high-profile legal analysts — University of Hawaii law school instructor Kenneth Lawson.

Among other clients, Barbee is representing former Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha in his federal conspiracy and public corruption trial.

Earlier this week, Barbee sent a letter to Avi Soifer, dean of the William S. Richardson Law School, asking him to keep Lawson from commenting to the media on various criminal cases, including the prosecution of Kealoha and his wife, Katherine, a former city prosecutor, and other Honolulu police officers.

If Lawson won’t stop talking he should be fired, Barbee said in a six-page letter sent to Soifer.

Lawson is a well-known instructor who specializes in defense and criminal law procedure. He’s also the co-director of the Hawaii Innocence Project, which has a mission of overturning wrongful convictions.

Retired HPD Chief Kealoha attorney Rustam Barbee opens door ahead of Louis Kealoha at District Court.
Rustam Barbee, who represents Louis Kealoha, attacked a University of Hawaii law school instructor who provides legal analysis and commentary to the media on his client’s case. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

But in the letter to Soifer, Barbee argued that Lawson’s statements to the media about various criminal cases have amounted to Lawson picking sides and calling certain defendants guilty before that has been  proven at trial.

Not only could this be detrimental to a defendant’s case, Barbee argued, but it could also reflect poorly on Lawson and, by extension, the law school.

“Commentary attributing guilt against pretrial defendants by a professor at a publicly funded law school does not advance the justice system but serves only to increase a risk of having a wrongful conviction at trial,” Barbee said.

“This has nothing to do with my comments. This has everything to do with the nature of them being bullies.” — Kenneth Lawson, University of Hawaii

The Kealohas and other HPD officers are set to stand trial for various charges stemming from an effort to frame Katherine Kealoha’s uncle, Gerard Puana, for the theft of their mailbox. Prosecutors say the Kealohas were trying to get leverage against Puana in a separate civil case that could have cost the Kealohas a lot of money.

The Kealohas also face numerous charges related to bank fraud and theft for bilking Puana and his grandmother out of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Lawson has been a frequent commentator on the case, and has provided legal analysis to numerous news outlets, including Civil Beat, over the past several years. Lawson also is often asked for his legal review of other cases in Hawaii.

In an interview with Civil Beat, Barbee said he also has concerns with other lawyers who have been talking to the press about the case. But they aren’t doing it from a platform as a member of a public institution.

He said Lawson is stepping outside his lane in a way that makes him a “tool of the prosecutors” and not someone who defends the rights of the wrongly convicted.

“He’s giving an opinion that could influence the people in the community who are reading his comments in an article,” Barbee said. “That’s poisoning the well.”

In the letter to Soifer, Barbee said: “If Professor Lawson cannot refrain from publicly attacking pretrial defendants, he should be fired and his position awarded to someone else more deserving and representative of providing criminal defense services.”

Lawson said the letter appears to a bullying tactic to shut him up. He said he’s never said the Kealohas were guilty. 

Instead, Lawson said he does what any legal analyst would do and responds to the series of facts and circumstances as they’ve been presented either in court documents or by the reporter asking him questions.

The fact that he’s been targeted, he said, seems to fit in with the Kealohas’ strategy of attacking those who they perceive as threats. 

“They have a pattern and practice of trying to punish people who speak out against them in ways that they don’t like,” Lawson said. “As far as Mr. Barbee is concerned, I think he would be better served defending his client than messing with me.”

Kenneth Lawson teaches criminal law and procedure at the University of Hawaii. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Lawson said this isn’t the first time he’s been on the wrong end of retaliation for speaking out about what he considers to be mistakes in law enforcement.

In 2014, he was a vocal critic of Kealoha and the Honolulu Police Department for its handling of the Darren Cachola case.

Cachola is an HPD sergeant who was caught on surveillance video beating his girlfriend inside a Waipahu restaurant. He was never arrested or charged with a crime.

That same year Lawson was quoted again in news articles about the Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney’s Office’s handling of the prosecution of Christopher Deedy.

Deedy was a federal agent who shot and killed a local man in a Waikiki McDonald’s, but city prosecutors struggled to get a conviction despite two trials.

In January 2015, Lawson said he was targeted politically for his willingness to comment critically on the high-profile cases.

State Sens. Mike Gabbard and Brickwood Galuteria introduced legislation that would create certain “character and fitness” requirements for someone to be a law professor at the University of Hawaii.

The bill, if passed, also would have blocked anyone who had been suspended or disbarred from teaching at the school. 

For Lawson, this would have meant the possibility of losing his job.

He’s a recovered drug addict whose past includes criminal convictions and the loss of his law license in Ohio for misconduct stemming from his addiction to prescription painkillers. He even spent time in prison.

While that aspect of his life is not something he tries to hide — it’s even highlighted on his official webpage at the law school — it appeared to him that someone was trying to use his story of redemption against him.

Lawson pointed out that he has the support of both Soifer and the law school despite Barbee’s attempts to keep him quiet. He said he has no intention of being muzzled.

“They can try these intimidation tactics with someone else, but not me,” Lawson said. “I’ve OD’d three times, I’ve been to prison and I was born in a mental institution, so there aren’t many things that scare me.”

“This has nothing to do with my comments,” he added. “This has everything to do with the nature of them being bullies.”

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