By David Shapiro
I've expressed respect on several occasions for James Steinseifer, who in 1997 was the first person convicted under a new Hawai'i law that doubled the maximum sentence for manslaughter in traffic fatalities to 20 years.
Steinseifer's crime was abominable: While drunk and speeding on Farrington Highway, he caused a head-on collision that killed two sisters and their infant niece.
What I respected was the forthright way he accepted responsibility. Beset with sorrow, he decided not to put the family of his victims through the anguish of a trial. He pleaded guilty to the top count of manslaughter, forsaking plea bargains, legal maneuvers or plays for sympathy.
"It's the right thing to do," Steinseifer told the judge. "I caused the deaths of three girls ... I'm responsible."
He didn't whine when he was sentenced to the maximum 20-year prison term.
I thought of Steinseifer often during the manslaughter trial of retired police officer Clyde Arakawa, who received the same 20-year sentence Monday for crushing 19-year-old Dana Ambrose to death while speeding drunk over the Pali Highway.
Unlike Steinseifer, Arakawa neither accepted responsibility nor expressed true remorse for Ambrose. Any defendant has the right to make a vigorous case for himself, but Arakawa's self-pitying efforts to evade accountability at any cost repulsed the community.
He sought special treatment because of his badge, then whined that he was picked on because he was a cop. He tried to stick the state with excessive legal fees. He impugned fellow police officers who investigated him. He attacked the integrity of the judge.
Arakawa showed no compassion for the Ambrose family. He sued the victim's estate for damages to the Ford Thunderbird he rammed into her. He defended his boozing by claiming his "practiced liver" enabled him to drive safely after consuming alcohol. He let his attorney accuse Ambrose of using "ecstacy" on the night of the collision despite autopsy results showing her to be drug-free.
When Arakawa finally said he wished he'd been the one to die that night, it sounded more like pity for himself than remorse for Ambrose.
In the end, the system worked admirably and justice was done.
The Police Department deserved the criticism it took for "courtesies" extended Arakawa immediately after the tragedy calling him a lawyer, letting him freely roam the crime scene, allowing him to duck a field sobriety test.
But police recovered nicely to conduct a by-the-numbers investigation that helped prosecutors build a rock-solid case against Arakawa for manslaughter a much more difficult crime to prove than negligent homicide.
Prosecutor Peter Carlisle represented the community's controlled rage before the jury, but he kept it professional against the baiting tactics of the defense and let the evidence do his talking.
Jurors quickly cut through the smokescreen thrown up by the defense and did their duty without hesitation.
Circuit Judge Karen Ahn remained cool and kept the trial on a steady course despite repeated ludicrous attacks against her by the defense.
I never thought Steinseifer should have gotten a softer sentence for shouldering responsibility for his actions. Nor did Arakawa deserve a stiffer sentence for refusing to accept blame. They committed the same serious crime, and it's just that they'll do the same serious time.
Steinseifer's reward for being honest with himself and the court is that he can look in the mirror each morning and respect what he sees. Let's hope Arakawa someday will conquer his demons and be able to do the same.
David Shapiro can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.