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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, June 25, 2009

Alleged child killer fit for trial

By Jim Dooley
Advertiser Staff Writer

Wearing a blue plastic prison jump suit and leg shackles, Matthew Higa appeared in court for the first time in more than a year on charges that he murdered toddler Cyrus Belt by throwing the boy from a freeway overpass in January 2008.

Higa, 24, whose mental fitness for trial has been questioned, appeared alert and focused as he answered questions from Circuit Judge Dexter Del Rosario about his readiness to proceed.

Higa's attorney, Randy Oyama, told del Rosario that Higa is mentally fit for trial and wanted to waive his right to a jury trial.

Del Rosario asked Higa a series of questions to determine if he was aware of all his legal rights. Higa answered "yes" clearly and quickly to del Rosario's queries.

He did say "no" when asked if he had taken any medication within the past 24 hours, but "yes" when asked if his mind was clear.

Satisfied with the answers, del Rosario set the week of Jan. 25, 2010, as the start date for Higa's non-jury trial.

Outside court, Oyama said he asked for a non-jury trial because of the extensive publicity the death of Cyrus Belt has received.

"A lot of people have formed an opinion about this case," Oyama said. "I'm not sure he could get a fair (jury) trial."

Prosecuting Attorney Peter Carlisle said he was "not surprised" that Higa and his lawyer opted for a non-jury trial, saying that such decisions happen with "some regularity."

The trial will be quicker because selecting a jury would have taken "an extended period of time," Carlisle said.

A panel of three mental health experts examined Higa last year and two declared him fit to stand trial.

The third expert said that Higa "likely is mildly psychotic" because of past abuse of the drug crystal methamphetamine.

That expert, Dr. Dennis Donovan, said Higa gave inconsistent and contradictory statements about where he was and what he did the morning that Cyrus Belt died.

Higa claimed he is innocent of the crime, Donovan reported, but could not explain the statements of eyewitnesses who reported seeing him toss the child from the Miller Street overpass onto H-1 Freeway below.

Higa lived in a Punchbowl-area apartment, one floor above the unit where Belt lived with his mother and her boyfriend.

How and why Higa allegedly took the 23-month-old child to the overpass and dropped him 30 feet into onrushing traffic are not known.

The crime, which occurred near noon on a weekday, shocked the state and received national attention.

Oyama said yesterday that Higa's mental condition "has improved quite a bit" since he was first arrested.

"He's very lucid and quite understanding of what's going on," Oyama said.