Pali slaying plea deal rejected
By Jim Dooley
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Jim Dooley
One guilty plea in the Pali golf course murder and racketeering case was withdrawn yesterday after U.S. District Judge Susan Oki Mollway said she could not approve the terms of a plea bargain reached between the killer and federal prosecutors.
"I am rejecting the plea agreement," Mollway told Reggie Minn, defense attorney for Rodney Joseph Jr., who had admitted killing one man in a blaze of gunfire at the golf course parking lot Jan. 7, 2004.
One other victim died and a third was critically wounded in what authorities said was a dispute between rival crime factions over illegal gambling operations on O'ahu.
"Mr. Joseph is asking the court to set aside his guilty plea at this time," Minn then told Mollway.
Mollway's ruling almost certainly means she will reject identical plea deals reached with Joseph's co-defendants, Ethan "Malu" Motta and Kevin "Pancho" Gonsalves.
She is scheduled to hear their plea deals on July 24. Defense attorneys for Motta and Gonsalves were present in court yesterday afternoon but declined comment on the judge's ruling.
Mollway set Joseph's new trial date for Sept. 9, although it is likely to be delayed again.
The judge said she had never rejected a plea agreement before.
"This is the first time I am doing this," she said, adding that she has served as federal judge for 10 years.
But she said she could not agree with arguments from Minn and Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Brady that Joseph's guilty plea, coupled with his refusal to testify against any co-defendants, meant that he had provided "substantial assistance" to the government.
The government had recommended that Joseph's prison sentence be reduced from a mandatory life behind bars to 27 1/2 years.
Minn and Brady said that Joseph and Gonsalves were the first to agree to plead guilty and those deals helped "pressure" another defendant in the racketeering case, Kai Ming Wang, to also admit guilt without going to trial.
Wang was not charged with involvement in the Pali shootings, but admitted owning an illegal gambling house here and hiring Joseph and others to provide "protection" for the operation.
Wang, who gave a lengthy statement to investigators, pleaded guilty to a federal racketeering conspiracy charge and was sentenced by Mollway in May to 27 months in prison.
With credit for the time he was in custody before trial, Wang, a Chinese national, has since been released from prison and deported from the country.
Motta also agreed to plead guilty in the case on the same day that Joseph, Gonsalves and Wang cut their deals with the government.
Joseph, Motta and Gonsalves conducted a joint defense in the case and filed a joint motion with Mollway defending the terms of the plea agreements.
"At first blush, the nature and extent of defendants' assistance to the government may seem minimal," the motion said.
But the three argued in their motion that their guilty pleas "induced defendant Wang to plead guilty" and also saved the government the expense of going to trial in what would have been a long and complex litigation.
Brady's motion for a reduction in Joseph's sentence made similar arguments.
A sentence of life in prison "does not adequately take into account (Joseph's) willingness to accept responsibility" for his crimes," Brady argued.
The plea agreement also assured "prompt and certain disposition of the case" and avoided "the expense of trial and appeal," Brady said.
Mollway said she was bothered by the timing of each defendant's agreement to his deal, pointing out that Motta's agreement actually came after Wang's.
And she was troubled by what she called "the very unusual provision" in the Joseph-Motta-Gonsalves agreements that they "would not be required to testify against anyone else."
But Brady said that all three men insisted on that provision because "they did not want to be considered rats."
Reach Jim Dooley at email@example.com.