Hawaii man found guilty of killing toddler
By Jim Dooley
Advertiser Staff Writer
Prosecutor Peter Carlisle will seek a sentence of 200 years behind bars for Matthew Higa, convicted yesterday of throwing 23-month-old toddler Cyrus Belt to his death from a freeway overpass Jan. 17, 2008.
In a brief court session, Circuit Judge Dexter Del Rosario found Higa, 24, guilty of second-degree murder.
Cyrus Belt's mother, Nancy Chanco, was in the courtroom to hear the verdict but left without comment, as did Lisa Belt, aunt of the slain boy. Shelton Higa, father of the defendant, also would not comment.
Carlisle said that he was expecting the guilty verdict, but defense lawyer Randall Oyama was visibly upset by it and said he plans an appeal.
"Our appeal is going to be that his (Del Rosario's) decision is clearly erroneous," Oyama said.
Carlisle said he will seek an extended term of punishment beyond the statutory maximum of life in prison with the possibility of parole.
Under new sentencing laws adopted by the Legislature in late 2007, a jury must be empaneled to consider requests for extended terms of imprisonment even in cases like the Higa trial in which the presence of a jury was waived and a judge found the defendant guilty.
Carlisle said he's not aware of any other case in which an extended term has been requested in a nonjury case.
For that reason, Del Rosario did not schedule a sentencing date for Higa, but asked the attorneys to return for a status conference in two weeks to discuss the legal issues surrounding the motion for an extended term of imprisonment.
State law sets the maximum sentence for second-degree murder at life in prison with the possibility of parole. Because the victim was a child, the law also requires that Higa serve at least 15 years behind bars before being considered for parole.
But Carlisle said Higa is a danger to society and should be sentenced to life without parole.
Failing that, Carlisle said, he will ask the Paroling Authority to require Higa to serve 200 years before becoming eligible for parole.
'TOOK IT VERY WELL'
Higa, dressed in a blue aloha shirt decorated with artwork of beer bottles and beer cans, sat impassively at the defense table when Del Rosario pronounced him guilty.
"He took it very well," Oyama said outside court.
Oyama's defense centered on medical evidence and witness testimony which he said showed that Cyrus was unconscious or dead before Higa hurled the boy from the Miller Street overpass near Punchbowl into the path of an oncoming delivery truck on H-1 Freeway, 30 feet below.
Oyama argued that someone else — perhaps Chanco's boyfriend — had harmed the child before Cyrus was given to Higa.
Higa did not testify in the trial. But, in statements to police after he was arrested, Higa said the boy was alive and crying before Higa threw him from the overpass.
Higa was high on the illegal street drug "ice" — crystal methamphetamine — when the crime occurred and Oyama said the defendant's police statements were untrustworthy.
Deputy Medical Examiner Dr. Gayle Suzuki testified in the trial that, in her opinion, Cyrus was killed by the fall or by the impact of the delivery truck.
Oyama, who asked before the trial that Del Rosario disqualify himself from the case, said he believed the defense had introduced sufficient "reasonable doubt" evidence to support a verdict of not guilty.
"I've been told by a lot of people that it doesn't matter what the evidence is, he's going to find him guilty anyway," Oyama continued.
"I can't say what I really want to say (about the verdict)," Oyama continued.
ROLE OF DRUG ABUSE
The child's murder, which occurred just before noon on a weekday just blocks from the state Capitol, shocked the state, generated headlines around the country and brought renewed attention to the widespread abuse of crystal methamphetamine in Island society.
Higa admitted after his arrest that he was a chronic ice user. Police officers involved in his arrest were familiar with Higa because of earlier drug-related arrests.
His father, Shelton Higa, testified as a defense witness in the trial, saying that he regularly smoked ice with his son and with Chanco and her boyfriend, Shane Mizusawa.
Chanco also took the witness stand to admit regular methamphetamine use, testifying that she was at a Chinatown illegal gambling parlor smoking ice with Shelton Higa when her son died.
She said she also smoked ice with Mizusawa at the "Back Door" gambling parlor that day and then went with him to spend hours at Ala Moana Center trying to shoplift to support the couple's drug habits.
Mizusawa also admitted to methamphetamine abuse on the witness stand, as did Clifton Higa, a friend of Mizusawa who is not related to the defendant. Clifton Higa was with Mizusawa the morning Cyrus died.
Mental health experts who examined Higa after he was arrested reported to the court that Higa had been damaged by long-term drug use.
Two of them said that Higa was mentally fit for trial, but a third, forensic psychologist Dennis Donovan, disagreed.
"I think he is mildly psychotic as a residual of his crystal methamphetamine use," Donovan told Del Rosario in a written report.
Del Rosario found Higa fit for trial.
The defendant sat quietly at the defense table throughout the trial, occasionally speaking with Oyama.
He showed no emotion during graphic testimony from medical experts about the autopsy of Cyrus.
Higa sat emotionless in his chair as motorist Mary Susan Arnold struggled through tears to describe what she saw after the boy's body hit the freeway.
Arnold, a nurse, said she pulled to side of the road and ran to see if she could help Cyrus.
"There was nothing I could do," she said. "I held its hand and said a prayer."
The child's hand was still warm to the touch, she said.
The father of Cyrus, David Belt, filed a civil suit last month against Higa, Chanco and the state Department of Human Services, alleging negligent supervision of the boy.
The suit seeks unspecified monetary damages from the defendants .
David Belt was serving prison time for a drug conviction when his son died.
Chanco's appearance in court yesterday was her second of the day. In the morning, she entered a not guilty plea in another courtroom to a felony robbery charge.
The victim in that case, Troy Carvalho, was allegedly robbed of $7,000 Nov. 11 while he was in his car with Chanco at the intersection of Auloa Street and Kalaniana'ole Highway, according to a police report.
Carvalho told police that a white Nissan stopped in front of him and two men emerged from it.
As one of the men began to argue with Carvalho and punch him in the face, Carvalho "felt the hands of his passenger, Chanco, start to grab at his pockets and remove his money," according to a police affidavit.
Chanco "removed $7,000 from his pocket without permission," the affidavit said.