HONOLULU (AP) — A former guard was found guilty of taking bribes from a Hawaii prison gang to smuggle drugs and cigarettes to prisoners, while an inmate was convicted of leading a brutal attack to maintain his position in the gang.
Jurors reached their verdicts Friday after deliberating for about five hours in a federal trial that has offered an inside look at the operations of the "USO Family" prison gang.
Prosecutors say the gang started with a few Hawaii inmates needing protection from other gangs when they found themselves in a mainland prison after the state began sending its inmates away because of a lack of space and budget constraints on the islands. The gang has grown to at least 1,000 members involved in drug-trafficking, violence and tax fraud, prosecutors said.
Former Halawa Correctional Facility guard Feso Malufau and inmate Tineimalo Adkins were among 18 men indicted last year on racketeering-related charges. The others have pleaded guilty.
Malufau's defense attorney, Barry Edwards, maintained the gang is so sophisticated that it was able to frame the former guard, preying on his financial troubles. The prosecution asserted his money problems motivated him to become corrupt.
Edwards declined to comment after the verdicts were read.
Adkins' defense attorney, Marcus Sierra, said no credible witnesses testified he took part in the 2013 attack. Sierra said it doesn't make sense that Adkins would misbehave nine months before his scheduled release.
Adkins plans to appeal, Sierra said. "I think he was prepared for the worst," the attorney said.
Many of the witnesses who testified during the trial were current or former inmates who described how the gang participates in riots and deals and uses drugs in prison. They discussed oaths to never turn their backs on each other and taking beatings as punishment. Some testified with the expectation of receiving shorter sentences in exchange for their testimony. One prosecution witness was afraid of the defendants seeing his face, so he refused to testify or even enter the courtroom. "Uso" means brother in Samoan, but the gang includes members of any ethnicity.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jill Otake said she credits law enforcement for "taking down a prolific criminal organization."
"And there were a lot of hurdles in this case because of the fear of violence and intimidation," she said.
The guilty verdicts and pleas put a significant dent in the gang, she said. "It has a chilling effect and sends a message," Otake said.
The trial also exposed weaknesses in Hawaii's prison system. At Halawa, inmate calls were unmonitored, searches of staff were cursory and log books went largely ignored, Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Brady said in his closing statement.
"These guilty verdicts are a result of our concerted effort to root out contraband and corruption and strengthen procedures," state Department of Public Safety Director Ted Sakai said in a statement. "Our hard-working, dedicated employees as well as the public expect us to weed out these types of illegal, unsafe activities, and we are continuing to do that through on-going investigations."
Malufau and Adkins face up to 20 years in prison when they are sentenced in February. Prosecutors requested Malufau, who is free on bail, be detained pending sentencing. U.S. District Judge Leslie Kobayashi set an Oct. 20 hearing on whether he must be detained.
Edwards told the judge that Malufau has abided by the conditions of his release and is the sole caregiver for his 8-year-old and 18-year-old children. His wife is serving a one-year prison term for bankruptcy fraud.
Follow Jennifer Sinco Kelleher at http://www.twitter.com/JenHapa .