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Silence settled over the courtroom on the fourth floor of the federal courthouse in downtown Honolulu on the afternoon of June 27.
“The tension was palpable,” says jury foreman Daniel Berkline. “It was really tense silence and there weren’t even people whispering to each other.”
As the jury foreman, Berkline was responsible for delivering the verdict forms determining the outcome of the federal criminal conspiracy trial involving former Honolulu police chief Louis Kealoha, his city prosecutor wife Katherine Kealoha and three police officers — Derek Hahn, Minh-Hung “Bobby” Nguyen and Gordon Shiraishi.
The mood that afternoon, he said, was “gnarly.”
The news he delivered to U.S. District Judge J. Michael Seabright was grim: four of the five defendants were found guilty of conspiring to frame Katherine Kealoha’s uncle for a mailbox theft. The jury found Shiraishi, a now-retired Honolulu Police Department major, not guilty of all charges.
But Berkline, a 37-year-old father born and raised on Oahu, said he didn’t realize the magnitude of this case — not when he first showed up for jury selection at the Neal S. Blaisdell Center in May and not when he signed the verdict forms.
“I still don’t know how big it is,” he said. “I don’t have any idea.”
There wasn’t a “smoking gun” that decisively swayed the jury, Berkline said. What there was was a “mountain of evidence” from the prosecutors that defense attorneys did not effectively challenge.
“It wasn’t just one thing,” he said. “It was just the trail — the literal paper trail.”
Berkline said he and other jurors kept waiting for the defense to strike back, to deliver the kind of cross examination that would really demonstrate the “reasonable doubt” argument the lawyers were emphasizing.
“We just never got there,” the jury foreman said. “We kept waiting.”
Defense attorneys for the case could not be reached for comment for this story.
On Shiraishi’s acquittal, Berkline said he didn’t believe Shiraishi knew that he was part of a conspiracy when he was covering for his longtime friend, Louis Kealoha.
“I think blindly covering for your buddy happens all day every day in probably every facet of everything we do,” he said.
For the others, Berkline said the defense attorneys didn’t seem to have an alternative when the line of questioning was not going the way they intended.
An example of that was when Gerard Puana, Katherine Kealoha’s uncle who four of the defendants were found guilty of framing, took the witness stand. Berkline expected to see defense attorneys throw their biggest punches.
Attorneys tried to tarnish Puana’s credibility by repeatedly putting up his booking photo, where he appears angry, he said.
“They’re mug shots,” Berkline said. “What is he supposed to look like? Is he supposed to look happy?”
The defense — Katherine Kealoha’s attorney Cynthia Kagiwada in particular — had tried to raise questions about the cash Puana had received from his mother, but Berkline said Puana seemed to have a good explanation for everything.
“He didn’t get riled or maybe they weren’t good enough to get him off of his game,” Berkline said. “It was kind of anticlimactic.”
And when the defense called its own witnesses, it seemed to do more harm than good, the jury foreman said.
For example, Kevin Sumida, who Berkline said was his most memorable witness, took the witness stand to undermine the prosecutors’ argument that Katherine Kealoha’s motive to frame her uncle was because he’d sued her, threatening to expose her financial schemes.
Sumida ended up being accused of lying on the witness stand. Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Wheat repeatedly asked him if he was looking through his files during a break, to which he said no.
Watching the surveillance video of the courtroom where Sumida is seen flipping through his files was a strange experience, Berkline said.
“I wondered first why he brought all his files,” the jury foreman said of Sumida. “They could take your stuff, which is what actually ended up happening.”
Berkline said he felt that nobody could win in this situation, no matter the verdict.
He recalled watching the video of the deposition of Florence Puana, Katherine Kealoha’s grandmother who she’s accused of defrauding, and feeling sad that things have gotten so “messed up.”
“There isn’t going to be a balance for this,” he said. “That’s what I got from watching that testimony. It was that things got so bad where a family like this is virtually torn apart over money,” he added.
Kagiwada had called the family’s financial dispute a “misunderstanding,” which Berkline said he was very put off by. She tried to play up the interconnectedness of the Hawaii community as a defense for her client.
“Don’t try and lump what happened with this family into being a Hawaii thing,” he said.
It took the jurors about a day and a half to reach a verdict. Berkline said he was surprised to read news reports about how fast the turnaround was.
The deliberations happened in a methodical way, where everyone came together as a group and worked through the verdict form “count by count, bullet point by bullet point, defendant by defendant,” he said.
It helped that all the jurors, some of whom were from the neighbor islands, were engaged throughout the trial, he said. And that translated well in the deliberation room.
Berkline noted that many times when people work together in a group some people sit back and do nothing, others talk a lot and the rest are the “in-between” people who do the work.
“I think where we lucked out is that I think we had 12 in-betweens,” he said.
He says he still hasn’t gotten to read the packet of news reports regarding the trial, something the court prepared for jurors.
But people he hadn’t heard from in a long time and even friends of his parents have messaged him to say thanks, he said. He struggles with that, he added.
“I don’t think I did anything heroic,” he said. “I went in there thinking that you go in there and you do your civic duty and you render this verdict, which apparently, mass amounts of people in the state and elsewhere are thrilled about.”
Civil Beat reporter Nick Grube contributed to this report.
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