Attorney Alexander Silvert, author of “The Mailbox Conspiracy,” joins producer/host Coralie Chun Matayoshi to discuss burden of proof, reasonable doubt, credibility of witnesses, involuntary intoxication, and other factors that led to Michael Hirokawa’s not guilty verdict.

Criminal charges against Michael Hirokawa

One count of kidnapping for intentionally or knowingly restraining another person with intent to inflict bodily injury upon that person or subject that person to a sexual offense. Kidnapping is a Class A felony offense, punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

Three counts of sexual assault in the first degree for knowingly subjecting another person to an act of sexual penetration by strong compulsion. First degree sexual assault is a Class A felony offense, punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

One count of attempted murder in the second degree for Intentionally engaging in conduct which constitutes a substantial step in a course of conduct intended to cause the death of another person.  Second degree attempted murder is a Class A felony offense, punishable by life imprisonment with the possibility of parole. 

Presumption of innocence

The presumption of innocence means that a person must be considered innocent until they are proven guilty in a court of law. The burden is on the prosecution to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The presumption of innocence is designed to protect people if they are falsely accused and minimize the occurrence of wrongful convictions.

Voluntary vs. Involuntary Intoxication

Voluntary intoxication does not excuse criminal behavior. 

Hirokawa claimed that he became involuntarily intoxicated when the victim drugged him which caused him to become violent and commit all those crimes; therefore, he lacked criminal intent to be held responsible for his actions. 

To be held criminally responsible, the Prosecution had to prove that Hirokawa had the requisite criminal intent (“mens rea” in Latin).  Mens rea refers to the mental element of a person’s intention to commit a crime; or knowledge that one’s action or lack of action would cause a crime to be committed. The literal translation from Latin is “guilty mind.”  The mens rea requirement is premised on the idea that one must possess a guilty state of mind and be aware of his or her misconduct; however, a defendant need not know that their conduct is illegal to be guilty of a crime.

If someone involuntarily gets intoxicated through no fault of their own (e.g., tricked, under duress, mistake, date rape) they cannot be “blamed” for their actions and can assert a defense of involuntary intoxication.

Here, there was evidence that there was Ambien and LSD in Hirokawa’s drink, but not in the woman’s glass. Hirokawa claimed the woman drugged him in order to rob him. The prosecution claimed Hirokawa planted the drugs in his drink to make it look like he didn’t know what he was doing.

Credibility of witnesses

Sexual assault cases rarely have other witnesses, so credibility is crucial. 

The victim is a Korean citizen living in Chicago who was visiting Honolulu and worked as a hostess at Club New Business when she met Hirokawa. Hirokawa’s attorney brought up the point that the victim was on a student visa and was not supposed to work, and the victim admitted that she knew it was in violation of the immigration laws.

In court, the victim testified through an interpreter that she drove Hirokawa’s car and took him home to Capitol Place because he had too much to drink. On cross examination, the defense attorney pointed out inconsistencies in her testimony and in statements to investigators.  Hirokawa’s attorney questioned the victim’s testimony about how drunk Hirokawa was when they got to his apartment.  The victim had told investigators that Hirokawa was not steady and could fall if he walked without help so she helped him to his apartment.  After security footage was shown of the woman and Hirokawa entering the building and getting into the elevator, the victim admitted that Hirokawa was not unsteady and at no point in the video was she helping him.

The victim testified that when she and Hirokawa got to his apartment, he opened a bottle of wine and he drank a glass while she took a sip.  She said she wanted to leave but he started pulling her into the bedroom, overpowered her, and sexually assaulted her.  She escaped when he fell asleep.  Hirokawa’s attorney told jurors in his opening statement that Hirokawa was drugged when they got to his apartment and that the wine glass he drank from tested positive for Ambien and LSD.  Hirokawa claimed that he had no recollection of attacking the victim.

Hirokawa’s attorney also questioned the inadequacy of the police investigation, as they did not run drug tests on Hirokawa after his arrest even though they were aware of possible drug involvement.

Character witnesses testified that Hirokawa never showed any aggression or violence towards women or anyone else in all the years they had known him.  Michael Hirokawa’s younger brother, Ronald Hirokawa, told jurors they had gone drinking together throughout the years and Michael never had the tendency for violence.  He said Michael even volunteered as a Sunday school teacher and during the pandemic, would help pick up groceries for those under quarantine. When Ronald bailed Michael out, he asked what happened. Ronald said that Michael cried and said he didn’t remember what happened the night before.

Michael Hirokawa testified that he never did drugs. His brother Ronald also testified that Hirokawa tried smoking pot once in college when he was drunk, and it made him sick and throw up.

Defendants rarely take the stand in criminal cases

The 5th Amendment of the Constitution is the right against self-incrimination.  This means that you have a right to remain silent and that your silence does not imply guilt.  Defendants in a criminal case rarely take the stand because it opens them up to cross-examination and they may be questioned about prior unrelated bad conduct, whether or not ever charged or convicted of those acts, to impeach their credibility. 

Hirokawa did not deny that he committed the acts but said he did not recall any of it and suggested that the victim drugged him and tried to take nearly $2,400 in cash he had in his pocket.  Hirokawa took the witness stand to show that he did not voluntarily take the LSD and Ambien and that he was actually drugged.  He didn’t even have to show that he was drugged by the victim – just that he was drugged involuntarily without him knowing it.  Therefore, the defense argued, Hirokawa could not be held responsible for his actions because to be guilty of a crime, you have to have done it intentionally or knowingly.

Burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt

In a criminal case, it’s not up to the defendant to prove that he or she is innocent.  The burden is on the Prosecutor to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime. The Prosecutor must convince the jury that there is no other reasonable explanation that can come from the evidence presented at trial. If the jury looks at all of the evidence and has a reasonable doubt, or isn’t convinced one way or another, then they have to acquit.  All the defense needs to do is put reasonable doubt in the minds of the jurors that the defendant might not be guilty. 

Circumstantial evidence

Hirokawa was never tested for LSD or Ambien, but the defense claimed there was circumstantial evidence indicating that he must have been on drugs to commit such a horrific crime, and that the victim must have put the drugs in his wine glass. 

Circumstantial evidence relies on an inference to connect it to a conclusion of fact – such as a fingerprint at the scene of a crime. By contrast, direct evidence supports the truth of an assertion directly (i.e., without need for any additional evidence or inference). If a witness testifies that he saw a defendant fire a bullet into the body of a person who then died, this is direct testimony of material facts in a murder, and the only question is whether the witness is telling the truth.  Many cases are proven by circumstantial evidence (e.g., murders can be proven without a body even being discovered).

Hirokawa’s whole defense was built upon circumstantial evidence to raise reasonable doubt.  Hirokawa and character witnesses who testified on his behalf said that he didn’t take drugs, never showed any aggression or violence towards women, didn’t have a tendency for violence, and remained friendly and sociable even while drinking.  The defense argued the fact that he committed such a horrific crime itself was circumstantial evidence that something made him do it.  Ambien and LSD were found on his wine glass.  Since he doesn’t do drugs, how did it get there?  The defense insinuated that the victim must have put it in his wine glass.  Why?  To rob him of money she knew he had in his pocket.  Why, the defense asked, would Hirokawa have fallen asleep after committing such a horrific act if he didn’t have Ambien in his system?

Since the Prosecution had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Hirokawa ingested the drugs voluntarily, all the Defense had to do was present evidence that another scenario was possible – that the victim came up to Hirokawa’s apartment to rob him, that she drugged him, and that’s why he committed these horrible crimes, involuntarily.

Drug testing

In closing argument, Hirokawa’s attorney alleged that policework was shoddy because they failed to take samples from the wine glasses even though drugs had been a consideration by a police evidence specialist who suggested taking samples. A private toxicologist for the defense took samples from the wine glasses on the kitchen counter and sent them to a California laboratory, which tested the sample from his glass as positive for LSD (a hallucinogen) and Zolpidem (a prescription sedative also known as Ambien).  Since Hirokawa wasn’t tested for these drugs, if there hadn’t been traces of LSD and Ambien on his wine glass, it would have been more difficult to argue that Hirokawa had these drugs in his system when he committed these crimes.

The Prosecutor pointed out that Hirokawa’s apartment was left unsecured for over two weeks until forensic experts went there to collect evidence, which could have allowed evidence of LSD and Ambien to be planted.  However, it was HPD’s responsibility to secure the crime scene and test the relevant evidence.

Unanimous verdict is required

In criminal cases, the jury’s verdict has to be unanimous.  In this case, all 12 jurors found Hirokawa not guilty.

To learn more about this subject, tune into this video podcast.

Disclaimer:  this material is intended for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.  The law varies by jurisdiction and is constantly changing.  For legal advice, you should consult a lawyer that can apply the appropriate law to the facts in your case.