Car-linked deaths not easily resolved
By Peter Boylan
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Peter Boylan
It has been more than a year since Yukie Tokuyama's mother was struck and killed while crossing a street in Kaimuki.
While police arrested someone in connection with her death, the man later was released and has yet to be prosecuted, and Tokuyama said she is frustrated waiting for some resolution.
Her 79-year-old mother, Alice Hamada, was in a marked crosswalk in front of Sekiya's Restaurant and Delicatessen when she was killed Jan. 21, 2005.
"It's horrible. You have no idea," said Tokuyama, a college professor, by phone from her home in the Los Angeles area. "It's taken quite a while, and it's hard to get information (about her mother's case)."
Her mother's death is one of 182 negligent vehicular homicide cases Honolulu police opened from 2002 through 2005. But for a four-year period, from 2001 to 2005, prosecutors have pursued 27 felony negligent homicide cases, leading to 24 convictions. There are 13 cases still active from that period.
Statistics for the number of misdemeanor negligent homicide cases were not immediately available.
In Hamada's case, police arrested a driver of a Ford Explorer and found he had not had a driver's license since 2001, and had 20 previous traffic citations, including speeding, driving without a license and driving without proof of insurance.
Her family's yearlong odyssey with the criminal justice system is typical, police and prosecutors said, adding that negligent vehicular homicide investigations are highly technical, time-consuming and frustrating. Cases that look like slam dunks are often revealed to be complex upon further investigation. New witnesses or evidence emerges, creating a conflicting view of the original picture, and more investigation is needed.
"While the victims are frustrated with the time it takes (to investigate and prosecute), they would be more frustrated if we lost a case because we prematurely charged (someone) or didn't thoroughly investigate all angles," City Prosecutor Peter Carlisle said. "If an investigation isn't done thoroughly and appropriately, you'll lose the case and justice will be denied."
In Hamada's case, police sent their investigation to prosecutors, who sent it back "for further investigation," according to an official with the prosecutor's office. Prosecutors recently received the case from the police and are proceeding with the investigation, said Jim Fulton, spokesman for the prosecutor's office.
Meanwhile, families of victims suffer through uncertainty.
DELAY TACTICS COMMON
Negligent vehicular homicide in the first degree is a class "B" felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison, and prosecutors must prove negligence plus use of drugs or alcohol. Felony negligent homicide in the second degree is a class "C" felony, punishable by up to five years in jail, and prosecutors must only prove negligence.
Carlisle's office does pursue manslaughter charges for vehicular homicides in cases where the driver "knew of a risk but chose to disregard it," according to Deputy City Prosecutor Charles Izumoto. Manslaughter is a class "A" felony, punishable by up to 20 years in prison. There have been nine manslaughter prosecutions handled by Carlisle's office since 2001, resulting in five guilty or no-contest pleas.
Three of those cases are still pending, and one person was found guilty of a lesser offense.
Ronald F. Becker, director of the master of science in criminal justice administration program at Chaminade University, agrees with law enforcement that vehicular negligent homicide investigations are complicated but said they are also not often a top priority for prosecutors.
In the cases where the defendant is able to pay for an attorney, that attorney often uses every procedural delay possible, frustrating prosecutors, investigators and witnesses, Becker said.
"It does take time, a long time, to get these cases to court because they're not usually the most notorious cases the prosecutors face. It's also not unusual for prosecutors to work out plea agreements without consulting or informing the victim (or their family members)," said Becker, a former Texas sheriff's deputy who also is an attorney. "And it's not unheard of for the defense to employ a (delaying) tactic. If they (the defense) can't argue the facts, then argue the law. If they can't argue the law, then argue the facts. And if they can't argue the facts or the law, then obfuscate and delay."
Victims and witnesses can become so frustrated with the process that they "cease to respond," he said.
DEALING WITH CHAOS
It takes an average of eight months before the prosecutor's office receives a negligent vehicular homicide investigation from police, Fulton said, and the process can be prolonged if prosecutors decide more evidence is needed.
A fatal accident scene is a "chaotic place," said Capt. Jose Gaytan, head of the Honolulu Police Department traffic division, where several officers work while traffic snakes by and rescue workers tend to victims.
Investigators measure skid marks, note the location of bodies, check the condition of the vehicles, detail weather conditions, and try to gather every piece of evidence that will allow them to reconstruct the accident using mathematical equations and computer models.
The wreckage of vehicles needs to be cataloged and examined so mechanical failures can be ruled out as the cause.
The driver is tested for alcohol and drugs, and witnesses are found and interviewed.
In most cases, traffic investigators return to the accident scene later to watch the flow of traffic in search of contributing factors.
"There are little bits of evidence we have to gather before anyone disturbs it," Gaytan said. "Even with all the training the officers have, it turns out we don't have the expertise. So then we have to hire reconstruction experts from the Mainland. This is all fairly new science, and we have to do it. Our hands are tied."
Police also are at the disadvantage of not knowing what the prosecutor will have to prove later, meaning they try to collect as much evidence as they can without knowing which direction the case will go.
"Things happen at the scene (that complicate cases) and can be as simple as a fireman extracting the driver and then clearing all the witnesses to leave," said deputy prosecutor Franklin Pacarro Jr., who prosecuted his first negligent homicide case in District Court 18 years ago. "Now, (with all the witnesses gone and the driver extracted) prosecutors and police can't put the guy behind the wheel. It is meticulous work, and of course, it requires a lot of expertise. Our officers do a good job, but this is a highly technical area. We're talking about physics and stuff, and most of the experts are engineers, and our officers are not engineers."
Every detail in negligent vehicular homicide cases can be crucial because at trial, the defense can enlist a team of experts to dispute the prosecution's case, he said. In turn, the prosecution often hires a similar group of experts who often re-investigate the case. Reconstruction experts are expensive, based on the Mainland and not always available, Pacarro said.
VICTIM'S FAMILY WAITS
In the months before her death, 79-year-old Alice Hamada finished a 6.5-mile walk/run in Wahiawa with her group of friends, her daughter Tokuyama said. Hamada never received a formal education, but volunteered once a week at an elementary school and also knitted quilts for people in wheelchairs.
"She (Alice Hamada) worked hard to sustain an independent life and took as many precautions. She watched her diet and exercise," Tokuyama said. "It blows you away."
Hamada moved into the Kapahulu Avenue apartment her daughter bought weeks before she died and had just finished unpacking her last box. Now, her friend of the last eight years, Linda Roney, rents the apartment from Tokuyama.
"Alice's spirit lives on," Roney said. "She is a person that represents Hawai'i."
Reach Peter Boylan at firstname.lastname@example.org.