Three former Honolulu officials accused of involvement in a criminal conspiracy are hoping to put their fates in the hands of a judge instead of a jury, court filings show. 

Former city attorney Donna Leong, former police commission chair Max Sword and former managing director Roy Amemiya all filed requests with the U.S. District Court on Friday to waive their rights to a jury trial in favor of a bench trial. District Court Judge Leslie Kobayashi is presiding over the case. 

The trio pleaded not guilty to charges that they conspired to misuse city funds in the issuance of disgraced former police chief Louis Kealoha’s $250,000 severance package.

Roy Amemiya, Max Sword and Donna Leong each face one federal count of criminal conspiracy. Cory Lum/Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

Asking for a bench trial is a legal strategy employed by defendants who fear they may not be able to win over a jury of their peers, according to local legal experts. 

“Generally you want a jury when you feel the facts are in your favor,” Honolulu attorney Mateo Caballero said. “On the other hand, you want a judge to decide the case when the law is in your favor, and perhaps the facts are not sympathetic and might turn a jury against you.” 

In this case, trying to avoid a Honolulu jury pool makes sense, according to Caballero. 

A jury “might ignore the law and want to just punish them because they are high-ranking figures in a corruption scandal involving the former police chief,” Caballero said. 

Ken Lawson, who teaches criminal law at the University of Hawaii, agreed. 

“When you want to argue the legal fine points that a jury may not understand, a defendant wants to get a bench trial,” he said. 

“And if you’re going to argue that the evidence doesn’t amount to ‘beyond a reasonable doubt,’ judges can apply that, I think, better in a lot of cases than juries.” 

A challenge for the defendants in this case though is that in the federal system, the prosecution and the court have to agree to a bench trial. And Lawson said he couldn’t think of a reason the prosecution would do that.  

“It’s very rare to have a bench trial in federal court where both the prosecution and defense agreed to one,” he said. “Most prosecutors would rather take their chances with the jury.” 

As of Friday evening, the San Diego U.S. Attorney’s office that is prosecuting the case hadn’t filed any response in court to the defendants’ request. Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Wheat did not respond to a request for comment. 

Defense attorneys for Leong, Sword and Amemiya also did not respond to requests for comment. 

Ali Silvert, the former federal public defender who brought the Kealoha scandal to light, said there’s a slim chance the prosecution in this case – a mainland team – could perceive local juries to be “swayed by localism” in the defendants’ favor.

“The government could see it that way and want to do a non-jury trial,” he said. 

But he doubts it. In Silvert’s years as an attorney in the federal system, he said the only time he saw a prosecutor consent to a bench trial is when the defendant was pleading not guilty by reason of insanity. 

“Other than that, the government would never agree to a non-jury trial in any of our other cases,” he said.

We appreciate gifts of any amount

When you give, your donation is combined with gifts from thousands of your fellow readers, and together you help power the strongest team of investigative journalists in the state.

Every little bit helps. Will you join us?

About the Author