Mistrial in Honolulu police chief mailbox theft

AP News
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Posted: Dec 05, 2014 12:59 AM

HONOLULU (AP) — A federal trial involving a mailbox stolen from the home of the Honolulu police chief ended in a mistrial Thursday, soon after it got underway and provided glimpses into the chief's family squabbles and raised allegations about department misconduct.

The mistrial was declared after Chief Louis Kealoha unexpectedly testified about the criminal history of the relative accused of taking his mailbox last year. Kealoha was the second witness on the first day of the trial against Gerard Puana, the uncle of Kealoha's wife, Katherine Kealoha.

The chief was under direct examination by Assistant U.S. Attorney Larry Tong, who was asking how Puana looked at the time of the mailbox theft and how he was able to identify Puana in blurry surveillance footage showing a man hoisting the mailbox into a car and driving away.

"How he looks in this video is how he looked when he was charged and convicted for breaking into his neighbor's house," Kealoha responded.

Puana's public defender, Alexander Silvert, stood up, slapped a palm on the defense table and objected.

The jury was sent out of the courtroom, and Silvert asked for a mistrial.

Kealoha, an officer for more than 30 years, should have known better than to bring that up, "completely destroying my client's credibility with evidence that should not be admitted," Silvert argued, adding that it wasn't a conviction, but rather a deferral of a guilty plea.

Tong said Kealoha's answer was unexpected.

After a brief recess, U.S. District Judge Leslie Kobayashi returned to the bench, saying she had no choice but to grant a mistrial.

Kealoha's response was unsolicited, she said. Kobayashi set a new trial date for May 27.

Attorneys have advised Chief Louis Kealoha not to comment, police spokeswoman Teresa Bell said.

A mistrial hurts and helps Puana, Silvert said outside of court. During a new trial, prosecutors will be armed with the defense's theory, he said.

Silvert said the Kealohas framed Puana to discredit him in a lawsuit he and his 95-year-old mother filed claiming Katherine Kealoha stole money from them.

Katherine Kealoha is on personal leave as head of the career criminal unit of the Honolulu prosecutor's office.

According to the lawsuit, Katherine Kealoha helped her grandmother get a reverse mortgage on her home to pay for a condo for Puana. There were disbursements into an account Kealoha shared with her grandmother of more than $513,000, while the apartment cost about $376,000. She has failed to account for the difference, the lawsuit says.

Records in the lawsuit show expenditures for things like more than $2,000 for Elton John tickets, $4,000 for a Mercedes Benz lease payment and nearly $24,000 for her husband's police chief induction breakfast at the Sheraton Waikiki.

Katherine Kealoha denies the allegations.

Outside of court, Silvert said Louis Kealoha intentionally caused a mistrial to protect his wife in the civil case, which is scheduled to go to trial in state court this month. Losing the case could end her career, Silvert said.

"A not guilty verdict in this case would have gone a long way in clearing Mr. Puana's name in helping his case against the chief of police's wife, Katherine Kealoha," Silvert said.

Silvert's opening statement in the trial raised allegations of misconduct in the mailbox investigation, including falsified reports and off-the-books surveillance.

The first witness, retired Officer Niall Silva, conceded that he altered a report about the surveillance footage taken from the Kealoha home. When Silvert asked him if what he did was proper, he said: "What's done is done, sir."

The new trial promises to expose "a lot of misconduct in this case ... from the top to the bottom," Silvert said. "This is only the tip of the iceberg."

Bell, the police department spokeswoman, said the department has no comment on allegations of officer misconduct because it doesn't comment on court matters. ___

Follow Jennifer Sinco Kelleher at http://www.twitter.com/JenHapa.