Honolulu taxpayers could end up paying for the legal defense of three officers charged in an April shooting incident that ended with the death of 16-year-old Iremamber Sykap.
Geoffrey Thom faces a second-degree murder charge for shooting Sykap eight times through the back window of the car he was driving. Zackary Ah Nee is charged with one count of attempted murder in the second degree for shooting at Sykap’s brother, who was a passenger in the vehicle. Christopher Fredeluces is also charged with second-degree attempted murder for firing at Sykap.
The officers have acknowledged their part in the killing of Sykap but say they were protecting their lives and the lives of others when they fired into the vehicle after a high-speed chase that ended in Waikiki.
A grand jury last month declined to issue indictments against the men but Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Steve Alm’s office is pursuing criminal charges anyway.
The Honolulu Police Commission voted unanimously Wednesday to approve legal counsel for all three officers. Commissioner Doug Chin recused himself from the vote and any discussions but didn’t give a reason.
The police commissioners say their own rules, as well as state and county laws, require them to provide the officers with legal representation since the cases against them are a result of actions they took while on duty.
“If I was a member of the public, I would be confused why the city pays the legal fees for offices who have been criminally charged,” Commissioner Michael Broderick said. “(But) the law is clear that if the alleged conduct related to the officer arose out of his duties as a police officer, then we must provide paid legal counsel.”
The Honolulu City Council must ultimately decide at a future meeting whether or not the officers should have publicly paid attorneys. Thom, Ah Nee and Fredeluces are currently represented by Richard Sing, Thomas Otake and Crystal Glendon respectively.
Commissioner Carrie Okinaga said that the taxpayer-funded attorneys would be selected through a procurement process that requires city attorneys to seek lawyers to represent the officers and negotiate the pay for their defense.
Before the commissioners voted to provide legal counsel, Okinaga summarized the events that lead to the shooting. She said that in each incident, the city’s corporation counsel advised that the officers should be provided paid legal counsel since they were on duty.
The decision on taxpayer-funded counsel for the officers comes a day after their attorneys asked a judge to dismiss the cases on procedural grounds.
On Tuesday, attorneys for the officers asked that the court dismiss the cases because county prosecutors failed to secure indictments from a grand jury empaneled in June.
The three officers are expected to appear at a preliminary hearing July 20 in Honolulu District Court. At that hearing, the prosecutor’s office will present evidence to try and prove that probable cause exists to indict the officers.
But Thomas Otake, the lawyer for Ah Nee, argues that the case shouldn’t even reach that point.
Otake cites various state laws, sections of the Hawaii Constitution and several Hawaii Supreme Court cases in his argument for why the court should dismiss charges against the officers. He says that filing a complaint and presenting evidence at a preliminary hearing is only for the purpose of holding someone until a grand jury returns an indictment.
“What the State is trying to do here, however, goes far past putting the court before the horse,” Otake wrote. “It seeks to dispense with the cart entirely.”
Otake does not believe the government will present a convincing argument.
“The State will not be able to articulate a sound reason why it should be allowed to proceed on the basis of a prosecutor’s complaint and a lone judge’s determination of probable cause, when a group of independent citizens has unequivocally refused to find probable cause on the same evidence the State intends to adduce at the preliminary hearing,” he wrote.
Matt Dvonch, special counsel to the Honolulu prosecutor, said that the office will be filing a reply to the motion in court but declined to comment further. The office had yet to file that response as of Wednesday afternoon.
Also on Wednesday, the commission announced that its search for Honolulu’s next police chief will be delayed 30 days because it didn’t receive enough applicants for a consultant to comply with state procurement laws. The consultant would take on a bulk of the work sorting through applications.
Chairwoman Shannon Alivado said the seven-member commission will have to handle the process if not enough consultants apply.
The commission has so far received 24 applications, including 12 people from Hawaii and 12 from the mainland.
Meanwhile, the commission is also trying to figure out whether it wants to form a citizens advisory committee to help with the chief selection process. Activists pushed the idea at the last commission meeting June 23.
Alivado has been communicating with some of those individuals to see what other jurisdictions have done. She presented several ideas, including hosting listening sessions with Oahu residents to find out what they want in a police chief.
Broderick suggested taking applications from citizens to serve as part of an assessment group that evaluates police chief candidates. In the past, the commission appointed those individuals, he said.
The commissioners agreed that whatever form a citizen advisory committee takes, the choice of who ultimately becomes the next police chief stays with the commission.
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