Arakawa's guilt upheld
By Curtis Lum
Advertiser Staff Writer
The Hawai'i Supreme Court yesterday upheld the 2002 manslaughter conviction of former Honolulu Police officer Clyde Arakawa in the 2000 traffic death of Dana Ambrose.
But the state Supreme Court unanimously threw out Arakawa's appeal, in a ruling that city prosecutor Peter Carlisle said would help future drunk-driving prosecutions.
The case triggered a public uproar when it was disclosed that the off-duty police officer received special treatment from police at the scene of the October 2000 collision at the intersection of Pali Highway and School Street.
Ambrose, a 19-year-old college student, died of her injuries.
Ambrose's mother, Susan, of San Clemente, Calif., said in a phone interview last night she is still struggling with her daughter's death. Oct. 7 will mark three years since the accident.
Susan Ambrose said she hoped the case would send a message that the criminal justice system will not tolerate drunken driving. "I think I speak for many families who suffer a loss like this: You don't ever get over losing a child or a family member or a friend to a drunk driver," she said.
"You just try to keep one foot in front of the other every day and do things to continue your life and celebrate theirs."
Arakawa was convicted in February 2002 of being drunk when he ran a red light and crashed his Ford Thunderbird into Ambrose's car. He was off-duty and had just ended an evening in which he consumed 11 beers and a shot of hard liquor.
Arakawa did not testify, but a defense expert told the jury that because Arakawa was an "experienced drinker" who had a "practiced liver," he was able to consume such a quantity of alcohol without becoming drunk. Michael Ostendorp, Arakawa's trial lawyer, blamed Dana Ambrose for her own death, saying she was speeding and ran a red light at the intersection.
Carlisle, the trial prosecutor, said a key aspect of the ruling was the court upholding the blood-alcohol evidence. Arakawa was tested for alcohol nearly seven hours after the fatal accident, and police said it was only to determine if he was sober enough to be questioned by detectives.
The officer who administered the test also told Arakawa the results of the breath test would not be used against him. Circuit Judge Karen Ahn allowed the evidence at trial despite the objection by Ostendorp.
Ahn also allowed the prosecution to introduce evidence of a 1992 incident in which Arakawa was found drunk and passed out on the floor of a stranger's house in Kailua. Carlisle used that case as the foundation for the manslaughter conviction, arguing that Arakawa knew it was dangerous for him to drive while drunk.
The justices agreed the 1992 event was relevant to prove Arakawa "was aware that his judgment was seriously impaired when he was under the influence of alcohol."
"This case clearly shows that the police officers can take a blood test without the defendant's consent," Carlisle said. "And if the defendant has a prior alcohol-related offense, that too is admissible in a manslaughter case based on drunk driving.
"This type of evidence will now be able to be used in the future, consistent with this opinion, to convict people who cause deaths when they're under the influence of alcohol while driving a car."
Attorney Peter Esser, who filed the appeal on Arakawa's behalf, could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Susan Ambrose said she was grateful for the efforts of Carlisle and Rick Fried, who is handling a civil lawsuit. She also thanked the people of Hawai'i for their ongoing support of the family.
"Dana loved Hawai'i. She was part of the community. She had the aloha spirit that has been so graciously offered to us," Susan Ambrose said.
"I feel Dana's spirit with me every single day, and that gives me great comfort."
Arakawa was sentenced in April 2002 to 20 years in prison, and must serve at least 18 years before being eligible for parole.
Reach Curtis Lum at email@example.com or 525-8025.