Prosecutors mum on overlooked sex assault cases

Justice denied.

KHON2 reported last fall that 20 sex assault cases went nowhere in court because of a technicality–a lost stack of cases in the Honolulu prosecutors office.

After we discovered a traffic death case wasn’t charged soon enough and the suspect walked, Honolulu prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro had to answer to the city council on how that could happen.

What he revealed there shocked everyone.

“I came into office and some of the deputies had left, and one of the deputies who left office, we went in, and we found his case file and in one of the files there were sex assault cases that the statute of limitations had expired because the cases were never charged,” said Kaneshiro in November 2014.

There were 15 to 20 cases of sex assault that had to be dismissed dating back to at least 2010. Some cases were felony sex assault and others were misdemeanors. Other than that, the prosecutors office has shared little else about the dropped cases. Was there a serial rapist in the mix? A repeat victim? Someone of public notoriety accused?

Since then, Always Investigating has been trying to learn more about the cases, victims and suspects. But finding out the details hasn’t been easy.

There’s an effort to make sure it never happens again, but the lack of information about the mistake has some calling for more transparency.

The prosecutors office said “no public record of these cases” exists, and rebuffed Always Investigating’s open records demands. It said state law prohibits prosecutors from sharing information about cases that don’t end in a conviction, unless it’s it with other law enforcement.

KHON2 asked the Honolulu Police Department for the list since arrest records are public and HPD detectives sent all those cases to prosecutors. HPD says it didn’t get the list and opted not to ask prosecutors.

So Always Investigating turned to state Sen. Will Espero, chair of the Senate Committee on Public Safety, Intergovernmental and Military Affairs.

“For starters, what I can look at is see if there’s a resolution we can pass in the Legislature requiring or asking the police and the prosecutor to give certain information out to the public and media. I can also personally contact the prosecuting attorney’s office and the police and say, ‘Hey, what are your problems and can you share with me?'” he said.

Even though a new law from last year removes the statute of limitations going forward on first- and second-degree felony sex and some cases involving minors, Espero says he can also look into whether retroactive statute of limitations waivers are possible.

Always Investigating asked prosecutors and police repeatedly for interviews about what happened and was long denied comment. After weeks of asking, each let Always Investigating know a little more.

Prosecutors say members of the sex assault unit examined each case to document any especially egregious acts. Because of the circumstances, deputies and victim advocates made efforts to contact the victims as well.

Always Investigating asked, “Were there any cases with the same suspect?” Both prosecutors and HPD said no.

“There’s no reason to think there’s a link or involved the same individual,” HPD said in a statement.

Always Investigating asked if kids were involved, if there was any geographic pattern, or anyone including law enforcement getting special protection?

Prosecutors only clarified that and none of the suspects was a police officer.

One attorney, Myles S. Breiner, thinks the stack of dropped cases is a sign of a systemic problem.

“They pick and choose the ones they want to proceed on. Sometimes it appears politics are driving the decisions they’re making,” he said.

Breiner told Always Investigating about a case in which HPD sent prosecutors a case of a female in custody who accused a former Department of Public Safety nurse of sex assault.

“When I contacted the prosecutors office in early 2014 to ask the status of the case, they apologized and said, ‘We don’t know what happened. We can’t explain. It was supposed to be assigned to someone. We’ll get on it immediately,'” said Breiner.

He eventually got a letter from the prosecutors office saying criminal charges would not be filed in part because the victim also filed a civil suit.

Neither the prosecutors office nor police would provide proof of how many victims in the forgotten pile were reached, how and when.

Always Investigating asked what should victims who may fall into these categories–who haven’t heard about their cases or the status–should do next.

“Demand answers,” said Breiner.

“I’d hate to have to call a legislative committee hearing, but this seems like a very serious problem. Who knows whether these individuals will commit another crime or sexual assault again,” said Espero.

The prosecutors office is now using a computer system to better track cases and remind deputies of key deadlines.

Always Investigating asked for data on how the case-charging rate has improved since it got started, and was told there’s not enough manpower to run programs to tally it.

Police say they don’t currently have a way to track the outcome of cases they refer for prosecution.

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