Mike Miske, the former Honolulu business owner who is awaiting trial on federal charges stemming from his alleged control of a violent racketeering organization in Honolulu over two decades, will not face a possible death sentence if convicted.
The government’s decision not to seek the death penalty was disclosed by Hawaii’s Acting U.S. Attorney Judith Philips in a brief Aug. 13 letter to Judge Derrick Watson and Magistrate Judge Kenneth Mansfield.
It was publicly acknowledged during a Thursday morning status conference in the case, held by telephone with Mansfield presiding, and confirmed in a formal notice filed with the court and entered into the record.
“The United States of America hereby provides notice to the Court and to the parties that it will not seek the death penalty against defendant Michael J. Miske, Jr., in connection with the pending charges,” Philips wrote.
The decision means the death penalty “is no longer on the table or part of the proceedings,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Inciong said during the hearing.
Miske and 10 co-defendants were charged in a 22-count federal indictment in July 2020. Two additional defendants were added in a superseding indictment last month.
Miske is the sole defendant named in four capital punishment-eligible charges stemming from the disappearance of 21-year old Jonathan Fraser in 2016.
Prosecutors allege Miske plotted and directed the kidnapping and murder of Fraser, who Miske blamed for the death of his son and only child, Caleb, as the result of complications from injuries in a November 2015 automobile accident. Fraser survived the accident. Caleb Miske did not.
The immediate result will be the termination of San Francisco-based Michael N. Burt, assigned as “learned counsel” because of his extensive experience in capital cases, as required by federal law when a case includes charges that could lead to the death penalty. Also affected will be an investigator previously assigned to identify mitigating factors to be considered when the death penalty recommendation was being made, as well as preparing arguments for the jury if it was eventually asked to consider a death sentence in the case.
Thomas Otake, the lead attorney on Miske’s defense team, advised Mansfield that based on his discussions with attorneys representing several other defendants, there is likely to be a request to further delay the trial, currently set to begin in March 2022.
The trial was originally to be held in September 2020, but was pushed back for a year after the case was declared “complex” due to the number of defendants and the amount of evidence to be reviewed. It was delayed again until March 2022 over the objections of attorneys for two of the defendants. Any request for an additional delay is also likely to be contested.
The Hawaii U.S. Attorney’s Office first disclosed on May 25 it had made a recommendation whether or not to seek the death penalty, and was awaiting a decision by the Attorney General. The substance of its recommendation was not disclosed.
In death penalty-eligible cases, the recommendation of the local U.S. Attorney is submitted to the Justice Department in Washington, where it is reviewed before being submitted to a death penalty committee. The committee then makes a recommendation to the Attorney General for a final decision on whether to seek a maximum sentence of life in prison or death.
However, on July 1 the Justice Department issued a moratorium on executions amid a reexamination of death penalty policies, in line with President Joe Biden’s long-standing opposition to capital punishment.
There is also less public support for the death penalty than “at any time since the modern death penalty system was established in 1976,” according to an analysis of public opinion surveys going back as far as 1936, published early this month by the Washington Post.
Capital punishment was abolished by Hawaii’s legislature in 1957, two years before statehood.
Miske had faced four capital charges — murder in aid of racketeering, murder for hire conspiracy resulting in death, kidnapping using a facility of interstate commerce resulting in death, and conspiracy to commit kidnapping using a facility of interstate commerce.
With the death penalty no longer being considered, the maximum sentence on each of these counts is life in prison. The first two charges call for life in prison as the mandatory minimum sentence if convicted.
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Ian Lind is an award-winning investigative reporter and columnist who has been blogging daily for more than 20 years. He has also worked as a newsletter publisher, public interest advocate and lobbyist for Common Cause in Hawaii, peace educator, and legislative staffer. Lind is a lifelong resident of the islands. Read his blog here. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.