When death occurs on our roads, sometimes they’re just accidents.
But sometimes they’re caused by reckless drivers, like people speeding, drinking, or even texting behind the wheel.
The law calls that negligent homicide, and in those types of cases, it can take months or even years to investigate and prosecute.
It’s been a year since Ed and Paula Werner’s son, Kaulana, died, but time hasn’t healed the pain.
“It’s a parent’s worst nightmare, but we struggle. We struggle every day,” Ed Werner said.
“It’s horrible. I miss him so much,” Paula Werner said.
Kaulana Werner was killed right in front of their family home on Farrington Highway in Nanakuli. He was only 19 years old.
Kaulana Werner graduated from Kamehameha Schools, where he was a standout football player.
“He took his last look at me. Yep. Then he just went close his eyes,” Ed Werner said.
The driver who hit Kaulana, Myisha Armitage, was arrested down the road for driving under the influence and for leaving the scene of a crash.
That was on April 24, 2016. Two days later, she was released from custody pending further investigation.
Nearly a year later, in March 2017, Armitage was formally charged for the crime. She was indicted by a grand jury for first-degree negligent homicide and for the hit-and-run.
She was rearrested and released on $11,000 bail. Her trial is scheduled to start next month.
Ed Werner told KHON2 he didn’t realize it would take this long for the case to go to trial.
“I was thinking after we got the report, it would be pretty quick,” he said.
Honolulu Police Department spokeswoman Sarah Yoro told KHON2 that there are many factors as to why negligent homicide investigations take awhile. They include tracking down witnesses, figuring out whether speed, drugs, alcohol, or distracted driving were factors, and that involves calculating data and creating diagrams.
Plus, there’s forensic testing, waiting for toxicology reports to come back, and sometimes waiting for the driver or passengers to recover from major injuries.
“It does take a long time, and they’ve got to do a thorough investigation,” said Kaulana Werner’s godmother Aina Bajet, “but for these two (Ed and Paula Werner), it really plays on your patience, because you’re just sitting and all the while this person is doing all the things your child could be doing, living their life.”
Even after a thorough investigation, many cases don’t result in an arrest.
According to HPD, in 2014, 43 negligent homicide cases were opened, and there were only three arrests that year. In 2015, 20 cases were opened, and only six people were arrested. In 2016, they opened 15 negligent homicide cases, and 17 people were arrested, with the reason being that sometimes arrests can come months or even years later.
Even after police do their investigation, not all cases go to trial. The prosecutor’s office can decline to move a case forward.
Chuck Parker, spokesman for the city Department of the Prosecuting Attorney, told KHON2: “This office looks at each case sent to it to determine whether a charge can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Charges are based on whether there is evidence to prove negligence.”
We wanted to know how many cases the prosecutor’s office turned down in the last three years, and it’s still working to get us that number.
We do know that between July 2015 and June 2016, only seven negligent homicide cases were filed in Oahu Circuit Court.
Under state law, the statute of limitations for first- or second-degree negligent homicide is three years, meaning prosecutors have three years from the time of the crash to charge someone with that crime.
For first-degree negligent homicide, Armitage faces up to 10 years in prison, but the maximum sentence isn’t always handed down.
Police say Scott Ebert was speeding when his truck slammed into HPD officer Garret Davis’ patrol car on the freeway in Aiea in 2012. Davis died in the fiery crash.
Ebert was charged with manslaughter, but was convicted of a much lesser crime of third-degree negligent homicide, and was sentenced to one year in jail.
In February 2015, retired police officer Charles Duncan hit and killed Shari Afuso while she was crossing the street in a crosswalk in Mililani. Duncan didn’t have to go to jail, and instead received five years probation.
In May 2015, Vince Kalaola hit a 57-year-old woman and her 13-year-old granddaughter while they were walking along Farrington Highway. Kalaola drove off, and the woman was dead by the time help arrived. He was sentenced to a month in jail.
“We’ve got to get stricter on the law, on negligence, because you make choices,” Ed Werner said. “What’s the difference between when you’re using a car to kill somebody or using a gun? It’s the same thing, a deadly weapon.”
In comparison, murder carries a sentence of up to life in prison, and manslaughter carries a sentence of up to 20 years.
But some argue that negligent homicide is different in that many of the suspects don’t have a criminal past.
As for the Kaulana Werner case, the trial is set to begin on June 12.
“The pain is, it’s a year over, but it’s just like day one,” Paula Werner said.
While it won’t get rid of the pain, the Werners are looking for some sort of closure.
“All we are asking for is justice,” Ed Werner said.