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Katherine Kealoha has not been good for Earle Partington’s law business.
Partington, 77, said he thought the publicity would bring in new clients — it has not. And he knows a thing or two about publicity; he represented a convicted killer in the Palmyra Atoll murders in the 1970s. That was turned into a book, then a made-for-TV movie.
The defense attorney sued the guys who wrote the book, but that’s another story.
Thus far, what he said being involved in the Kealoha case has done for him was get him ushered out of his old office. He played a small part in her trial on conspiracy charges and is representing her on appeal in that case.
Partington said his former officemate — a DUI lawyer — was outraged that Partington would represent Kealoha and kicked him out, forcing him to take refuge in the corner office of Kevin Sumida, Kealoha’s civil lawyer.
That DUI lawyer, when reached over the phone, said the separation was a personal matter between the two of them and declined to discuss it further.
Now, Partington’s sequestered in the small room surrounded by boxes numbering hundreds, most of which are Kealoha-related files belonging to Sumida. He pointed out that DUI attorneys represent clients who drove drunk and hurt people.
“Katherine Kealoha never hurt anyone,” he said. “Physically,” he added.
Representing “bad people” is their job, Partington said. “That’s what we do. We’re criminal lawyers.”
But Kealoha may not be the only reason deterring Partington, who’s also a retired Judge Advocate General officer and U.S. Army veteran, from having a more robust schedule.
His numerous disciplinary records aside, Partington, at his ripe age, doesn’t do mornings, nor jury trials. He’s got a medical condition that makes it hard for him to work a full day or under duress. He mostly works on appeals now, starting in the afternoon at around 1:30.
“You reach a certain time when you realize that you’re getting old,” he said. “And you start feeling the stress and stress kills people.”
Partington said he had vowed to retire from jury trials ever since he won his last one involving a Makaha woman who bashed a peacock in the head with an aluminum baseball bat.
That was a trial he could not lose, he said. He had ample evidence that peacocks are an invasive species here in Hawaii, and the jury could see how his client, a farm girl from Washington state, was being tortured daily by peacock mating sounds that apparently sounded like “a woman being murdered.”
Yet, despite the trial being an easy win for him, it was also very stressful, he said — so stressful that he decided he was too old to partake in jury trials anymore. Partington was 69 years old then.
“You see some of these old lawyers that don’t quit, they become laughingstocks,” he said. “I don’t want to be that way.”
So why make a comeback now? Though he joined in late on the Kealoha trial and only took part in questioning one witness, that was indeed a jury trial.
“Well, they offered me too much not to, so,” Partington said — “they” being Kealoha and her family.
How much? He would not say.
But it’s clear Kealoha can’t afford Partington’s services for her second and third trials involving bank fraud, identity theft and drug trafficking charges. He’s not involved in those.
Partington said he could not recall whether it was Sumida or Kealoha who called him up to enlist him as counsel for the mailbox trial. He’s told other reporters it was Sumida.
The one witness Partington took the podium to question was the man offering up the space he’s now sitting in — Sumida.
Sumida ended up being accused of lying after his time on the witness stand. He had brought his own stack of files to court from his representation of Kealoha in a civil case in which she was being sued by her uncle and grandmother for financial fraud.
He was recorded on tape flipping through the pages during recess, but when federal prosecutors asked if he looked through them, he repeatedly told them no.
“Well, lawyers are terrible witnesses, as Kevin turned out to be in the trial,” Partington said. “He was so nervous he didn’t remember what he was doing, going through his files.”
In 1965, Partington said he was sitting in a little outpost in Kon Tum, Vietnam, trying to decide what to do with his life. He was serving as an infantryman in the U.S. Army.
“I didn’t have any idea what I wanted to do or wanted to be,” he said. “And somebody said go to law school, so I took the LSAT.”
He speaks often about his military service, his fondness and patriotism reflected not only in words but also in his wardrobe choices. Partington is known to fancy neck ties with the American flag emblazoned on them when he goes to court, especially jury trials.
He said he’s got a collection of more than a dozen, which he accrued because many jurors over the years have come up to him to tell him they liked the tie. But that doesn’t mean he’s a nationalist, he pointed out. “I’m a patriot, not a nationalist. There’s a difference.”
And now he’s also got a Hawaiian flag tie, which he says he will wear to the next court event.
Partington said he only applied to two schools back when he was getting out of the Army. The Army’s educational testing service never sent his scores to one of them, he said, but he fortunately got into the other one, which was the law school at the University of California-Hastings.
After graduation, Partington said he worked as a federal public defender in California for a number of years before deciding to take some time off to travel around the world.
He and a buddy bought a Range Rover in England and drove it all the way to Southern Rhodesia, which is now Zimbabwe. He said he got a law degree at the university there, too.
What motivates him in his law practice?
“Winning,” he said.
Partington, who began practicing in Hawaii in 1975, said he’s never really had a particular vision for his law practice. “I mean, I liked criminal law. It was interesting, and it was the only talent I had.”
And to win, Partington has been known to take some unorthodox approaches, according to his former law partner, or “unsavory tactics,” if you ask the U.S. Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals.
Partington said he once refused to make an opening or a closing statement because he wanted the jury to think his client, who was accused of raping and murdering a woman, had an ineffective lawyer and take pity. That client ended up being convicted of lesser charges than two of his co-defendants.
“He’s just a controversial guy who seems to relish it,” said retired judge Dan Foley, Partington’s law partner of 11 years.
But Foley gives this disclaimer: “Before you judge a lawyer’s performance on a criminal case, just be aware, you’re not privy to all of the information that the lawyer has.”
That being said, Partington would sometimes make cases more difficult, he said. They didn’t always work on the same cases, as Foley primarily worked on civil cases and Partington, criminal. But when they did, Partington would sometimes cause unnecessary pain, he said.
“He unnecessarily pissed off a lot of people, but that was just who he was,” Foley said.
One time, when they co-represented a man named Thomas Lepere against the United Public Workers in 1995, Partington kept objecting left and right, Foley said. The judge was getting increasingly annoyed.
“I told him, ‘I think the judge hates you Earle,’” he said he told Partington. “And he said, ‘Don’t worry. We’ll win it on appeal.’ And we did.’”
The thing about his former colleague, Foley said, is that he never seemed afraid to pick a fight. Partington routinely challenged the Hawaii Supreme Court — and won.
“He wasn’t ever afraid to stand up against powerful institutions, to be in the middle of controversy,” Foley said.
The partners separated on good terms, he said.
“He’s a good man,” Foley said of his old partner. “Not everybody appreciates that, but he’s a good man.”
Sometimes, Partington’s legal tactics would get him into trouble with the courts. He was disciplined twice in California, and suspended in Oregon, Washington D.C., and Hawaii.
Partington is not shy about talking about the marks against him. In fact, he brought some of them up, including the court martial against him initiated by the military courts for allegedly misrepresenting certain facts to the court.
Partington calls it “a sham.”
“They brought a sham disciplinary proceeding against me to stop me from going out there and I refuse to participate in that.”
Now, Partington says he’s about to be disbarred in California in connection with the military court’s accusations against him, a case he’s been fighting for 13 years.
Partington was a late entry into the Kealoha conspiracy case but is continuing to represent her on appeal. He has moved for a new trial on the grounds that her main lawyer in the case was ineffective.
Ken Lawson, the co-director of Hawaii Innocence Project and a criminal law teacher at the University of Hawaii who has observed the entirety of the first Kealoha trial, said the timing at which Partington stepped into the corruption trial was curious.
“It’s a complex criminal case,” Lawson said. “For a lawyer to get a call from a prospective client almost at the end of the trial, there’s no way you can be competent. To me, he’s brought in to create a mistrial or to create confusion.”
As far as he saw, Lawson said Kealoha didn’t appear to have much ground for appeals and it just so happened that one of the biggest mistakes on the defense’s part was when Sumida was on the witness stand.
“To me, he’s brought in to create a mistrial or to create confusion.” — UH criminal law instructor Ken Lawson
And now, Partington is asking U.S. District Court Judge J. Michael Seabright for a new trial, saying Kealoha’s previous court-appointed counsel, Cynthia Kagiwada, was ineffective because she didn’t properly impeach Kealoha’s grandmother, Florence Puana or uncle, Gerard Puana.
Kagiwada quit in July citing ethical concerns.
Partington said Sumida had transcripts she could have used against them, but Kagiwada refused to use the information. Kagiwada would not return calls for comment.
Kagiwada couldn’t cross examine Florence or Gerard Puana without coming across to the jury like attacking the victim, Lawson said. It would be ill-advised for attorneys to go after a 99-year-old grandmother in a tough cross examination, he added.
“Why would you do that?” Lawson said.
Civil Beat also reached out to Rustam Barbee, who represents Louis Kealoha, for comment on his experience with Partington. Barbee declined to comment.
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