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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Fairness in sentencing important

By David Shapiro

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

James Steinseifer's case reveals the need for equity in treatment of defendants. He is serving a 20-year sentence for the drunken-driving fatality that killed three people.


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I thought of James Steinseifer when I read about the Big Island controversy over Circuit Judge Elizabeth Strance's decision to reduce the sentence of a Kona woman convicted in a drunken driving fatality from 10 years to 18 months.

Dana-Nicole Ellisor's alcohol level was well above the legal limit when she killed Christina Galurita in a 2006 collision on Queen Ka'ahumanu Highway, six weeks after Ellisor had another drunken accident.

The judge initially felt Ellisor didn't appreciate the gravity of her crime, but decided she's since shown enough remorse and rehabilitation to qualify for immediate release despite the objections of prosecutors and the victim's family.

Compare this to Steinseifer, who's been in prison 12 years for a similar crime, unable to get consideration for release despite significant acts of remorse and rehabilitation from the beginning.

It'll be interesting to see what happens in light of the Ellisor case when the Hawai'i Paroling Authority soon takes up a new request for Steinseifer's release.

Steinseifer's blood alcohol was four times the legal limit on Jan. 7, 1997, when he caused a Farrington Highway collision that killed sisters Nicole Nuuanu-Dudoit, 22, and Carina Nuuanu, 24, and their 1-year-old niece, Laakea Nuuanu.

Steinseifer had an earlier drunken driving conviction and Prosecutor Peter Carlisle made an example of him under a new law increasing the maximum penalty for vehicular manslaughter from 10 years to 20 years to life.

Carlisle pushed for life, but then-Circuit Judge James Aiona Jr. gave him 20 years after the Nuuanu family told the court they "didn't believe in their hearts that another life should be wasted." It was Hawai'i's harshest sentence ever for vehicular manslaughter, and the parole board set a minimum term of 15 years.

The family spoke up for Steinseifer because he accepted responsibility for his crime and showed sincere remorse; not wanting to put the Nuuanu family through a trial, he pleaded guilty to the top manslaughter charge with the extended sentence.

He's been a model prisoner with good job ratings. He's led alcoholic recovery groups and counseled young people to avoid his mistakes. The Farrington High grad, who was 33 when convicted, has pursued a college degree.

Now the Nuuanu family wants to speak to the parole board in support of Steinseifer's release, and his attorney Myles Breiner has petitioned for a special hearing.

"We are simply asking for a hearing to allow the victims' family the opportunity to publicly say enough is enough, and another pound of flesh will not lessen our grief or justify the continued incarceration of a truly remorseful and rehabilitated James Steinseifer," Breiner said.

Steinseifer's crime was horrific and he deserved a stiff sentence, but there has to be some equity in the way our judicial system treats defendants convicted of similar bad acts.

Even if Dana-Nicole Ellisor was rehabilitated as the judge said, how could she have atoned as much in 18 months as Steinseifer has in 12 years of diligent effort? Where's the justice in so gross a disparity of time served for essentially the same crime?

When Steinseifer first sought early release in 2005 after serving eight years, Carlisle argued he had to serve past the 10 years of the old vehicular manslaughter law or it would make a mockery of the extended sentencing legislation.

That was a reasonable concern, but we're now two years past the 10 years, and Steinseifer has served more time than any other vehicular manslaughter defendant in Hawai'i.

Carlisle and the parole board have set their example. Keeping Steinseifer imprisoned in disregard of the Nuuanu's family's wish for peace and closure serves no purpose other than meanness.