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After 18 days of trial, the jury began deliberations Wednesday after hearing the closing arguments in the criminal case against retired Honolulu police chief Louis Kealoha and his wife, Katherine, a former city prosecutor.
The Kealohas are accused along with three Honolulu police officers — Derek Hahn, Minh-Hung “Bobby” Nguyen and Gordon Shiraishi — of framing Katherine’s uncle Gerard Puana for the theft of her mailbox on June 21, 2013.
On Wednesday, the defense attorneys for Nguyen and Shiraishi tried to poke holes in the government’s case and focused on the question of reasonable doubt, just as the attorneys representing three other police officer defendants did the day before in their closings.
Each defense attorney emphasized the idea that their clients had no motive to be a part of the alleged conspiracy.
Randy Hironaka, who represents Nguyen, said the mailbox theft investigation went down as business as usual for the police officer defendants and that police officers talk to each other all the time about cases.
“Their conferring is not a problem,” Hironaka said. He later added that his client having direct contact with Katherine Kealoha is not “some weird thing.”
Hironaka specifically addressed the fact that two HPD homicide detectives were assigned to investigate the mailbox theft and that the main suspect in the case, Gerard Puana, was put under surveillance after he was identified as a possible suspect.
“This is the chief of police’s mailbox ladies and gentlemen,” he said. “This isn’t just anybody’s mailbox. So they’re going to put the best and brightest on it.”
Hironaka also had a list of witnesses in the trial who he labeled as irrelevant or not credible, one of them being Niall Silva, the former police officer who has already pleaded guilty on conspiracy charges.
Attorneys for other defendants have also tried to discredit Silva, saying he has admitted to lying numerous times.
Among other witnesses that Hironaka called irrelevant was Alexander Silvert, who defended Gerard Puana in the criminal trial in connection with the mailbox theft. Silvert is responsible for triggering the federal corruption investigation.
Another was Florence Puana, who is Katherine Kealoha’s grandmother and an alleged victim of her financial crimes. Hironaka tried to undermine her testimony.
Puana, who is 99, was unable to testify in person at the trial, but participated in a videotaped deposition, parts of which were played for jurors.
“It was pretty long and it was pretty painful,” Hironaka said.
Florence Puana’s testimony seemed particularly damaging for Hironaka’s client, Nguyen. She said that on June 19, 2013, she and her son were participating in a deposition in the civil lawsuit they filed against Katherine Kealoha accusing her of fraud and financial elder abuse.
She testified about getting kicked out of the deposition after calling her granddaughter a liar and waiting in the lobby while her son went to get his car to take her home.
While waiting, Florence Puana said Nguyen was there and began asking her questions about the type of vehicle her son drove. In particular, he asked her what color it was.
She told him — mistakenly — that it was white when in fact it was a silver Pontiac.
Two days later a man in a white sedan, identified during trial as a Lexus, drove up to the Kealohas’ residence to steal their mailbox.
Hironaka questioned how Puana could recall such a seemingly small detail. He also questioned whether it was feasible she would even make such a mistake, especially considering she’s been in that car numerous times.
“She doesn’t make that mistake,” Hironaka said. “And she certainly doesn’t remember that she made that mistake a year later.”
Hironaka had a rocky start to his closing argument, with a prosecutor objecting within the first few minutes after Hironaka said the jurors’ job is not to determine who stole the mailbox, and if any juror tries to go there, others should “corral them away.”
U.S. District Court Judge J. Michael Seabright repeatedly warned Hironaka not to tell the jury what to do throughout his hour and 15 minutes.
Lars Isaacson, who represents Gordon Shiraishi, the former head of the Criminal Intelligence Unit, tried to appeal to jurors that his client did not intentionally lie to federal authorities when he said he spoke on the phone with Louis Kealoha the morning after the mailbox was stolen.
Phone records show that did not happen. Prosecutors have used Shiraishi’s conflicting testimony to argue that he was “filling a hole” in the conspiracy timeline.
Isaacson said that’s because Shiraishi was confusing the events of that day with what happened a week later, when Shiraishi called Kealoha at 8:22 a.m. “He only tried to remember, never mislead,” the attorney said.
“You can’t fill a hole if you don’t know the hole is there,” Isaacson added.
Isaacson emphasized to jurors Shiraishi’s good reputation and more than three decades of law enforcement experience, in part to show that he had no motive to be part of a conspiracy.
“What benefit would he get for throwing his life away?” the attorney said. “None.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Orabona spent nearly an hour dismantling the closing arguments for each defendant.
He saved most of his ammunition, however, for the end when he reiterated the ultimate motive behind the framing of Gerard Puana — money.
Orabona focused his attention on Katherine Kealoha, who is accused of stealing money from both Puana and his mother.
He specifically pointed out how she duped her grandmother into obtaining a reverse mortgage on her family home to buy her son, Gerard, a condominium, and how she helped the Kealohas consolidate their debts.
Instead, Orabona outlined how Kealoha spent $135,000 of her grandmother’s money in six months to fuel her own lavish lifestyle, lied about paying off the reverse mortgage and tried to have her uncle banished to a drug treatment center for two years after a 2011 arrest.
When the Puanas began to suspect something was amiss and that Katherine Kealoha had stolen their money, Orabona said that’s when the conspiracy kicked in.
“Out of all the people on Oahu, how did they so confidently see Gerard Puana in that video?” Orabona asked.
“Besides Florence, Gerard was the only one capable of revealing the ugly truth and lies.”
To the defense attorneys’ claims that their clients had no motive to conspire, Orabona said, “They’re a secret unit. They’re a specialized unit for the chief. Their benefit is promotion.”
Nguyen, he said, was a “footman” who was “at the bottom of the totem pole,” who could’ve avoided going back to work in the streets and gotten an opportunity to climb up the ladder. Shiraishi is a long-time friend of Louis Kealoha.
“And who handpicked Gordon Shiraishi to be at the top of CIU?” Orabona said. “Louis Kealoha. That’s who did it. That’s the motive.”
Orabona reminded the jurors that proving a conspiracy doesn’t require direct evidence of coordination or agreement. Circumstantial evidence carries the same weight, he said, and it’s on the jurors to tie together certain facts.
To make his point he gave them an analogy. Put a cat and mouse in a box together and close the lid. If after 10 minutes only the cat is left inside the box, it’s pretty easy to infer what went down.
“You know what happened to the mouse, but you didn’t see it,” Orabona said. “That’s circumstantial evidence.”
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