Hula master gets jail term
By Kevin Dayton
Advertiser Big Island Bureau
By Kevin Dayton
HILO, Hawai'i — Kumu hula Rae Fonseca was sentenced to six months in jail yesterday for a 2003 traffic accident that killed a Big Island man, but will be allowed to leave jail to work and perform community service.
Fonseca, 52, tested positive for cocaine after the Dec. 13, 2003, crash on a private road in the Eden Roc subdivision that killed 58-year-old Michael R. Spens.
Fonseca pleaded no contest in February to a charge of second-degree negligent homicide. The terms of a plea agreement kept prosecutors from seeking more than six months in jail for Fonseca, who is head of the Hilo-based Halau Hula 'O Kahikilaulani.
Hilo Circuit Judge Greg Nakamura agreed to allow Fonseca to leave jail to continue his work with his hula halau under a schedule that Fonseca must work out with state prison officials. He also will be allowed to leave jail for up to seven hours a week to perform community service.
Fonseca could have received up to five years in prison for the negligent homicide conviction.
Luline Kahapea, a friend of the Spens family, read a letter from Spens' daughter Dawn before sentencing. The daughter wrote that she very much missed her father, whom she described as a caring man who tried to help others.
"My Dad made me feel complete. You have taken that away," Dawn Spens wrote. "I will forever feel incomplete, longing for how life used to be."
She was unable to attend the sentencing hearing yesterday because of an illness, Kahapea said.
A red-eyed Fonseca apologized to Nakamura and the Spens family, offered condolences to the family, and said he wanted to take responsibility for the crash. "I have a deep regret for the wrong committed and the loss of life that occurred," he said.
He added, "I also realize there is nothing I can do balance the loss of life that was taken."
Fonseca's lawyer, Andrew Wilson, said about 100 people from Hawai'i, Mexico and Japan sent letters or signed petitions in support of Fonseca, asking the court to consider his contributions in preserving Hawaiian culture.
Wilson said that Fonseca is a deeply religious man and that the crash had a profound effect on his spirituality.
"I think he has rededicated himself to sharing what he can with the community," Wilson said. "He knows that life on this Earth is fleeting, and you have to take advantage of what you can do every day, and so he wants to share that, his belief and the hula and what he knows about it."
Deputy Prosecutor Rick Damerville said Fonseca was driving a sport utility vehicle 40 mph in a 25-mph zone, traveling on the wrong side of the road to avoid potholes at the time of the collision.
Fonseca had more than 54 traffic citations during the past 10 years, including multiple tickets for speeding or driving without no-fault insurance, and he provided police with a fake no-fault insurance card after the crash that killed Spens, Damerville said.
At least one observer was dissatisfied with yesterday's sentence. Del Pranke, a Puna resident who has been active with the grass-roots group Citizens for Justice, said the six-month jail term was too lenient.
"The sentence itself is kind of ridiculous, isn't it?" Pranke said. "The police are out there trying their darnedest, it takes years to build a case and go to court, and then they get let off."
Unimpressed with the show of community support for Fonseca, Pranke said any defendant can round up friends to write letters asking for leniency.
A Big Island grand jury initially indicted Fonseca for first-degree negligent homicide and driving under the influence of an intoxicant, but Damerville said prosecutors entered into the plea agreement because there were complications in the case.
For one thing, under Hawai'i law it would be difficult to prove Fonseca was impaired by his cocaine use at the time of the accident, Damerville said.
Court records also show there were legally prescribed drugs in Spens' system that could have affected his ability to drive, including codeine. Damerville said Spens was driving a moped that had been illegally modified to give it more power, and had obtained the moped the day of the crash.
Nakamura sentenced Fonseca to five years probation and six months in jail, with credit for time served for about a month that Fonseca was jailed in California in 2005 pending extradition proceedings. Authorities arrested Fonseca in San Francisco after his indictment in connection with the case.
Wilson said Fonseca was returning to Hawai'i from Mexico when he was arrested and had been unaware of the indictment. Wilson said Fonseca had no intention of fleeing, but Nakamura ordered that Fonseca repay $3,240 associated with the Mainland arrest and extradition effort.
Wilson said Fonseca has agreed to surrender his Eden Roc house, the only asset he has, to settle a lawsuit over the crash filed by Dawn Spens. The house is being sold, and Wilson asked Nakamura to allow Fonseca time to complete the sale before he reports to jail.
Nakamura gave Fonseca three weeks to settle his affairs before he reports to begin his sentence.
Reach Kevin Dayton at firstname.lastname@example.org.