Mental health experts have submitted a dozen reports to the court assessing the mental state of John Ali Hoffman, but the case still has not moved forward.

A Big Island man accused of murdering his wife and two children in 2016 remains locked up in the Hilo jail seven years later with no trial or resolution of the charges in sight, his case stalled by years of inquiries into his mental health.

The criminal case against John Ali Hoffman, 56, was first suspended on May 19, 2016, to allow him to be examined by a panel of three experts to assess his mental condition. Each of those experts concluded Hoffman was fit to proceed, meaning he could understand the proceedings and assist in his defense.

Dr. Andrew Bisset, one of the psychiatrists tasked with assessing Hoffman’s mental health, concluded in his 2016 report that “it was clear that (Hoffman) was attempting to establish psychiatric impairment as a defense against the charges he faces.”

Then-Acting Circuit Court Judge Henry Nakamoto ruled in early 2017 that Hoffman was fit to proceed and the murder case against him could move forward, but little has been resolved in the six years since.

Hawaii Community Correctional Center located in Hilo.
Hoffman remains at the Hawaii Community Correctional Center located in Hilo more than seven years after he was arrested for the murders of his wife and children. No trial date has been set. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

Instead, the proceedings were again suspended as Hoffman’s mental health was scrutinized in a series of additional examinations. Hoffman currently remains in the Hilo jail in lieu of bail totaling more than $2 million.

Family Killed

The fatal shootings of Hoffman’s wife and children horrified many Big Island residents in 2016, and triggered a vigil and rally against domestic violence in Hilo days after the killings.

According to police reports, Hoffman called police shortly before 1:50 a.m. on May 6, 2016, to report that three or four unidentified men had entered his house on Moku Street in Leilani Estates in Puna, and shot his wife.

When police arrived at the home, they saw a blue Toyota Corolla driving away from the house with its lights off, and officers stopped the car on a nearby street. Hoffman was the driver, and police arrested him when they saw a handgun on the seat next to him.

Hoffman had blood on him, and police saw blood leaking from the trunk of the vehicle, where they found the body of Hoffman’s wife, Aracely Hoffman.

Aracely had been shot in the head, and the couple’s children Clara Hoffman, 7, and John Hoffman, 5, were found dead inside the family’s Moku Street home. They also had been shot in the head, according to police reports.

Hoffman later told one of the psychiatrists who examined him in jail that he did not remember what happened that night. As for his wife’s body in trunk of the car he was driving, Hoffman told the examiner that “I wanted her to come with me … I didn’t know what I was doing.”

Hoffman was charged with first-degree murder, three counts of second-degree murder, possession of a firearm while committing a separate felony and another firearms violation. If convicted of first-degree murder, he faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole.

In all, court records show various experts including psychiatrists and psychologists have submitted a dozen reports that attempted to assess his mental state.

Extraordinary Delays

Experts familiar with the process of determining fitness to proceed say this case appears to be an anomaly and raises questions about what could cause such extraordinary delays.

Retired Third Circuit Court Judge Ronald Ibarra, who served as a Big Island judge for 28 years, said he dealt with many cases that required mental exams, but never had a case drag on nearly as long as Hoffman’s with no resolution.

“I don’t know the specific facts in this case, but on its face, seven years, the length of time is a long time,” he said.

Ibarra also wondered why Hoffman remains at the Hawaii Community Correctional Center so many years after the murders if the authorities consider him to be mentally unfit for trial.

Normal procedure calls for defendants in that situation to undergo treatment at a facility such as the Hawaii State Hospital to make them fit for trial, he said.

“If the person is not fit to proceed, and the state is trying to medically get them fit to proceed, then it should be at the state hospital if (he is) in custody,” Ibarra said.

John Ali Hoffman has been jailed on the Big Island for seven years with no trial or resolution of the charges in sight.(Courtesy photo Hawaii Department of Public Safety)

Stanton Oshiro, a prominent Hilo lawyer who is representing Hoffman, did not respond to requests for comment. Nakamoto, the judge overseeing the case, referred a request for comment to the state Judiciary.

Jan Kagehiro, spokeswoman for the Judiciary, said in a written response that the Code of Judicial Conduct does not permit judges to discuss cases that are active before the court.

Bisset reported to the court that “throughout the interviews the Defendant focused on his belief that he was the victim of a conspiracy to deprive him of property that he owned, that various judges had conspired to have him killed, that through title searches he had found that he was the owner of multiple properties, and that attempts on his life had been made …

“It is not at all clear what kind of listings he had found through searching on the internet, but he had become convinced that his situation had ‘national security implications’ because of the number of Chinese and Japanese individuals listed,” Bisset wrote in his report to the court.

Hoffman claimed in a court hearing in 2016 that it would be a “breach of national security” to make public some of the evidence in his case but did not explain why. He initially planned to represent himself, and later demanded that a lawyer appointed to represent him be replaced, according to the court minutes.

He also has filed lengthy, convoluted documents in various court cases, with some demanding the return of property he claimed was improperly taken from him.

The court-ordered reports by the expert panels are supposed to determine two issues. First, defendants are examined to determine if they are fit to proceed. If the answer is no, the judge can order treatment to make the prisoner mentally capable to continue the legal process, including a trial.

“You don’t get any restoration of fitness at the Hilo jail.”

Honolulu lawyer Nelson Goo

In Hoffman’s case, the only court decisions on the fitness issue reflected in the court minutes are Nakamoto’s 2017 decision that Hoffman was fit to proceed, and a 2017 ruling in a separate case by Per Diem District Court Judge Michael Udovic that also declared Hoffman to be fit.

The mental health experts are also tasked with offering opinions on whether Hoffman was legally responsible for his actions. Under Hawaii law, a person may be acquitted of a crime if that person “lacks substantial capacity” to comply with the law or appreciate the wrongfulness of their conduct because of a “physical or mental disease, disorder, or defect.”

If the experts determine a defendant was not responsible for his or her actions at the time of the crime, the defense lawyer can ask the court for an acquittal. If the judge agrees, the defendant be may be committed to the Hawaii State Hospital for treatment.

The court minutes in Hoffman’s case show the case has been suspended for years while the experts prepared mental exams, but do not indicate any motion was ever filed seeking acquittal of Hoffman on the grounds he was not legally responsible for his actions.

Many Mental Examinations

Most of the court-ordered reports on Hoffman’s mental health are sealed, but court minutes show five of the experts concluded that Hoffman is fit to proceed to trial, while one examiner in 2021 concluded he was not fit. The results of the other reports are not disclosed in the minutes.

Oshiro, who has been representing Hoffman since fall of 2017, explained to the court in 2020 he is “running a 704 defense,” meaning he plans to argue that Hoffman was not legally responsible for the murders because of his mental state.

But Ibarra said that in his experience, even particularly complex mental examinations are wrapped up in a year or two.

Nelson Goo, a Honolulu lawyer who has handled many cases that require mental examinations of defendants, echoed Ibarra’s observation that if Hoffman is mentally unfit to proceed, he should be at Hawaii State Hospital undergoing treatment.

“You don’t get any restoration of fitness at the Hilo jail,” Goo said, noting the poor conditions at the jail. “In fact, it’s one of the worst jails ever.” Goo said he defers to Oshiro but said if it was his case, “I would be making a big push to go to Hawaii State (Hospital).”

Hawaii Community Correctional Center located in Hilo.
A dozen sealed reports have been filed with the 3rd Circuit Court by experts who evaluated John Hoffman’s mental state, but the case remains stalled while yet another report is being prepared. In the meantime, Hoffman remains at the Hilo jail. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

The first three reports sent to the court in 2016 found Hoffman fit to proceed, according to the court minutes, and Nakamoto then ruled in 2017 that Hoffman was fit to proceed with the case.

Oshiro then requested another examination of Hoffman by three experts in 2018. Nakamoto agreed, and suspended proceedings in the case while the new evaluation was done.

The court minutes don’t disclose the findings of the next three reports, which were all filed in 2018. But Oshiro explained at a hearing in mid-2019 that the reports he received did not “address issues (they were) supposed to,” according to the court minutes in the case.

Justice Delayed

Meanwhile, Oshiro was gathering additional information in the case through subpoenas to various state, county and federal agencies, including a trove of Hoffman’s writings that were discovered at the police department.

Additional sealed evaluations of Hoffman were then filed with the court in 2020 and 2021. Court minutes show one expert found Hoffman was unfit in 2021, while two others including Bisset again declared Hoffman to be fit to proceed that year.

Oshiro then told the court he needed to make arrangements to replace Bisset with another examiner, and the new examiner submitted another report to the court last fall. Bisset declined to comment on the Hoffman case other than to say he did not ask to be removed as one of the examiners.

Oshiro also told the court this year he has been trying to hire another independent examiner, and the minutes for the most recent hearing on May 19 are unclear on whether the independent examiner has yet been hired. The next hearing in the case is scheduled for July 21.

Ramon Figueroa-Centeno, a math professor at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, got to know the Hoffman family because Aracely Hoffman sometimes attended the Spanish-language Catholic mass at Malia Puka O Kalani Church in Keauhaka.

Aracely, who was known as Aracely del Carmen Monroy Urruela before she married Hoffman, was an immigrant from El Salvador who had been married to Hoffman for eight years.

After the murders, Figueroa-Centeno volunteered to translate for Aracely’s mother and brother to help them navigate the legal proceedings, and it fell to him to try to explain to them why Hoffman wasn’t being promptly convicted and punished.

Figueroa-Centeno described John Hoffman, who weighed 270 pounds at the time he was arrested, as combative and “the scariest person I’ve ever met.” Figueroa-Centeno said he worries Hoffman might someday be released because of his mental condition.

Hoffman is irrational, but he is not “completely gone” because he took steps such as trying to move his wife’s body, Figueroa-Centeno said. “He must have had some level of awareness of guilt,” he said.

Figueroa-Centeno suspects Hoffman cannot properly assist in his own defense, but also does not quite qualify for an insanity defense. “There is a puka in our legal system for dealing with people like that,” he said.

Hoffman seems trapped in a kind of “pre-trial limbo” under Hawaii criminal law, and is being held in a jail that is not equipped to hold such an inmate for the long term, he said. In fact, Hoffman was indicted in 2018 for assaulting a corrections officer at the jail.

“He belongs in another kind of institution, for his own good,” Figueroa-Centeno said.

Help power our public service journalism

As a local newsroom, Civil Beat has a unique public service role in times of crisis.

That’s why we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content, so we can get vital information out to everyone, from all communities.

We are deploying a significant amount of our resources to covering the Maui fires, and your support ensures that we can pivot when these types of emergencies arise.

Make a gift to Civil Beat today and help power our nonprofit newsroom.

About the Author