After a grand jury and a judge rejected murder charges for three Honolulu police officers in the killing of Iremamber Sykap,  Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Steve Alm Monday took the unusual step of criticizing the Honolulu Police Department and a District Court judge for their handling of the case.

At a press conference, Alm chided HPD for allowing the officers involved in the shooting death to write their reports in the same squad room.

The prosecutor also took issue with Judge William Domingo, saying that several parts of the hearing “puzzled and disturbed me,” including the judge’s decision to block an expert witness for the prosecution, a former HPD trainer. 

Honolulu Prosecutor Steven Alm talks about the recent HPD preliminary trial at a press conference held at his office.
Honolulu Prosecutor Steven Alm maintains that the shootings of Iremamber Sykap and his brother were unjustified. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Alm acknowledged his decision to prosecute the officers was unpopular among many island residents and law enforcement supporters, but he dismissed implications that he took up the case to advance his political aspirations.

“The idea that, you know, I’m going after three police officers to somehow further a political career is ridiculous,” he said. “It makes it easy for me in many ways because I’m not looking for another job.”

Neal Milner, a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii, said Alm’s statements about the case stand out among local politicians.

“What’s interesting is how different he is from the way policy and politics tends to happen in this place, which is much more cautious and much more concerned about the political implications,” he said.

“You can see him as stubborn, you can see him as vindictive, you can see him as confident, whatever else. The guy’s been around. He was a judge. He is probably less likely to take what he considers a bad ruling from other judges.”

The shooting death occurred on April 5. Officer Geoffrey Thom shot 10 times through the back of a stolen Honda, killing Iremamber Sykap. Officer Zackary Ah Nee shot and injured the driver’s brother, Mark Sykap, in the passenger seat. And Officer Christopher Fredeluces shot at Iremamber Sykap but missed.

During the preliminary hearing, Officer Chanel Price testified that the officers sat together in a room to write their reports and that a representative of the police union, the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers, reviewed hers. Alm said that the opportunity to compare notes would not happen in other criminal cases.

“That procedure – getting together – would never be allowed in other cases involving suspects in any other crime,” Alm said. “That shouldn’t have happened here.”

Meda Chesney-Lind, a University of Hawaii criminologist, said Alm is right that officers should be separated. Allowing them to “line up their reminiscences” in the same room is clearly inappropriate, she said.

Ken Lawson, co-director of the Hawaii Innocence Project, agreed.

“It taints the whole investigation,” he said. “There is a reason that when police get to a crime scene they separate the witnesses.” 

SHOPO President Malcolm Lutu did not respond to a request for comment on Monday evening.

Alex Garcia, a retired police lieutenant and former union official, said there is nothing nefarious or unusual about the practice.

“You want to make sure you’re accurate,” he said. “I’ve never ever seen anyone say, ‘OK, this is the story.’”

Alm, a former judge himself, said he was “surprised and disappointed” by Domingo’s finding that there was no probable cause to proceed to trial. And he disagreed with the judge’s decision to block one of the prosecution’s expert witnesses.

John Frierson, an HPD corporal who retired in 2018, trained police recruits in Honolulu, including Fredeluces. Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Christopher Van Marter told the court that Frierson would testify that the officers “did everything in that scenario that they were trained not to do,” including escalating the situation.

Judge William Domingo presides over preliminary hearing as prosecutors will try to convince the judge that probable cause exists to formally bring charges against Geoffrey Thom, who is accused of second degree murder for shooting Sykap eight times in the back, as well as Zachary Ah Nee and Christopher Fredeluces, who are accused of second degree attempted murder for shooting at Sykap and his brother.
Judge William Domingo ruled that the shooting was legally justified. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Domingo blocked the witness, saying that he would only allow Frierson’s testimony if the defense presented an expert witness of its own. But the defense never did.

“This then allowed the defense to decide if Mr. Frierson would be ending up testifying or not. And in my opinion, that is just wrong,” he said.

“I would’ve thought Judge Domingo would’ve wanted as much information as possible in order to render the proper decision.”

Alm also took issue with the argument of the defense – which the judge ultimately agreed with – that officers were in a “zone of danger” around the car Sykap was driving.

“Judge Domingo seemed to say that whenever an officer is in close proximity around the vehicle, he is in a ‘zone of danger,’ and that justifies the use of deadly force,” Alm said. “If those officers, in fact, were in danger, they placed themselves in that position. They shouldn’t then be able to use self-defense or defense of others” to justify their actions.

Alm said that Sykap’s alleged involvement in a crime spree before he was shot did not give officers the right to kill him. The law only allows officers to use deadly force if there is an immediate threat to their lives or the lives of others, Alm said. Van Marter argued in court that no such threat existed for any of the officers. 

In his ruling, Domingo said his conclusion may have been different if Sykap hadn’t led police on a high-speed pursuit or engaged in what he called a “provocation.”

Alm noted there were inconsistencies between officers’ written statements and their body camera footage. He said his office gave more credence to the videos.

“We chose to believe our eyes,” he said.

Alm said that the officers violated HPD policy. Ultimately, the police chief will determine whether a policy violation occurred and whether the officers will face discipline. Interim Chief Rade Vanic was not available for comment on Monday, according to department spokeswoman Michelle Yu.

Alm said he has the ability to try to bring charges against the officers again but said he won’t.

“The court system has spoken,” he said. “I understand that. I accept that. The prosecution of those three officers by this office is over.” 

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