Slow pace the norm in fatal traffic cases

April 22, 2002

By Scott Ishikawa, ADVERTISER STAFF WRITER

Nearly eight months ago, Elizabeth Kekoa was killed when her family van was struck by a car that police say was racing on the H-1 Freeway. Police arrested a 21-year-old man, but released him the same day.

Almost one year ago, Honolulu police officer Danny Padayao was hit by a pickup truck and killed near Kualoa Regional Park as he put down flares for a traffic accident. A 22-year-old man was arrested, but later released.

And 15 months ago, Lorrie-Ann Wiley was killed when a car crossed the center line on Kalani-anaole Highway and smashed into Wiley's car near Waim?nalo. It wasn't until this month that the man police say was driving the other car, 20-year-old Kam Williams, was indicted by a grand jury on a charge of manslaughter.

In Honolulu, it's not unusual for months, sometimes years to go by before charges are filed in fatal traffic cases. It is especially frustrating to relatives of crash victims when the evidence seems irrefutable - a suspect found at the scene, witnesses to the crash, an incriminating blood alcohol test.

Among the primary reasons for such delays is that Hawaii doesn't have enough traffic reconstruction experts, police and prosecutors said. Cases must be sent to Mainland experts, and often those cases must stand in line while the experts work on other cases from elsewhere.

"Is it frustrating waiting for a resolution? Yes," said Willie Davis, older brother of Elizabeth Kekoa and the spokesman for the Kekoa family. "But I tell (the family) we have to be patient. We have to make sure things are done right."

There are no national statistics or even expert estimates on the average time it takes for metropolitan police departments to investigate fatal crashes and refer cases for prosecution.

But Franklin E. Zimring, a University of California-Berkeley law professor and criminal justice expert, said he believes that even with a lack of accident reconstruction experts it shouldn't take as long as a year to investigate a fatal crash. He suggested a case-screening program for major vehicle accidents should be set up to fast-track certain cases.

"While many of these negligent homicide cases do take time, it sounds like a backlog of cases where a one-size-fits-all policy is holding things up," Zimring said. "Unfortunately, in our society, traffic enforcement also takes a low priority in the criminal justice system."

Under Hawaii law, police often arrest drivers suspected of causing fatal accidents because they are believed to be drunk, speeding, reckless or simply not paying enough attention to driving. But those suspects also are routinely released while the police conduct their investigation.

The prosecutor's office reviews the case. If prosecutors believe there is enough evidence to convict the driver, they ask a grand jury to return an indictment (the criminal charges). A bench warrant is then issued for the driver's arrest. Once arrested, the driver is ordered to stand trial.

Charges in fatal collisions can range from manslaughter - recklessly killing someone - to third-degree negligent homicide, killing someone while driving negligently.

Even in the high-profile case of police officer Clyde Arakawa, seven months passed between the time he killed 19-year-old Dana Ambrose in a drunken-driving crash and his indictment for manslaughter. Arakawa was convicted of manslaughter earlier this year, and his sentencing is scheduled for today.

Collin Lau, a professor of criminal justice and criminology at Chaminade University, said traffic fatalities can be more difficult to prosecute than other violent crimes, such as murder or robbery.

"Sometimes there is a lack of eyewitnesses in these cases, and it often becomes a battle between the expert witnesses representing both sides on who was at fault," said Lau, a deputy city prosecutor from 1981 to 1985.

"As in the Clyde Arakawa case, prosecuting the defendant for manslaughter rather than negligent homicide may prolong the process because it's a much more serious charge."

Lawrence Grean, director of case screening at the city prosecutor's office, acknowledges the process is lengthy, but said substantial time is needed to determine if someone was at fault.

"Automobile accidents require some things that other types of investigations do not, so it would be unfair to say the case process is languishing," Grean said. "It's complex work that may require reconstructing an accident scene to determine the cause, or the speed a vehicle was going."

In the Arakawa case, the defense claimed Ambrose, not Arakawa, ran a red light and caused the crash. The prosecution hired a reconstruction specialist from California to gather and review evidence for the case.

"Sending reports to Mainland experts can take a couple or several months, and if necessary, some of them fly here to analyze the crash site," Grean said. "Some of these folks have expertise and background that can sway a jury. So if clients from all across the nation are seeking these people, you have to take a number and wait in line."

Attorney Rick Fried, whose firm represents the Kekoa family, has filed a lawsuit against Nicholas Tudisco, the suspect in the fatal crash. Fried said he understands the need for a thorough investigation, but wonders if the backlog of cases is because of a lack of qualified traffic investigators.

"The investigators are doing a good job, but we need more of them," Fried said.

Honolulu Police Capt. Bryan Wauke said it's the need for precise, thorough investigations, not a backlog of cases, that affects how long a case takes.

"It's not a manpower shortage, even though we would love to take on more staffing," Wauke said. "You just have to make sure everything is done correctly and not give up quality of work just for speed."

Wauke said the department's vehicular homicide section's 25-person staff is working on 74 fatal crash cases from last year, along with another 59 accidents involving critical injuries. He said nearly all of those cases are forwarded to the prosecutor's office.

Meanwhile, the Kekoa family continues to wait for a determination on whether criminal charges will be brought against Tudisco. Elizabeth Kekoa, 58, was a teacher at Holy Trinity School. Kekoa's husband, Wally, and mother, Rose Alma, were also injured in the crash.

"Some of my brothers and relatives, particularly those living on the Mainland, call and ask, `Hey, what's taking so long?' " Davis said.

Along with the emotional loss, Davis said Kekoa's death has brought financial difficulties for the family, because she was the breadwinner. Kekoa's son has dropped out of college for financial reasons and family members are discussing the fate of their longtime Hawaii Kai home, Davis said.

"Because of the financial situation, it would probably be very difficult to maintain that property," Davis said. "But overall, what I don't like is the way the family has been fractured. And it really hurts knowing (the other driver) is out living his life, while we go through this."

Davis, however, said he's trying to be patient.

"The accident and waiting has been a trying time for the family, but I have all confidence in the system," Davis said. "I want to make sure those responsible don't get off on a legal technicality.

"For whatever how long it takes ... we'll get to the bottom of this."

Reach Scott Ishikawa at sishikawa@honoluluadvertiser .com or 535-2429.

Drop-in:

Awaiting resolution

In Honolulu, months usually pass before charges are filed in fatal traffic cases, frustrating relatives of crash victims. Here are five cases from last year that are unresolved.

Jan. 2, 2001

FATALITY: Lorrie-Ann Wiley killed when her car collides with another car near Olomana Golf Links.

DRIVER: The driver of the other car at the time of the accident was not arrested.

STATUS: Kam K. Williams indicted April 3 on manslaughter charge. He has pleaded not guilty.

March 7, 2001

FATALITY: Theron Keoki Nicodemus, 21, of `Ewa Beach, is struck by a van while riding a bicycle on Fort Weaver Road. The driver of the van flees the scene.

SUSPECT: A 32-year-old `Ewa Beach man is arrested the next day and released.

STATUS: Under investigation by police.

April 30, 2001

FATALITY: Honolulu police officer Dannygriggs "Danny" Padayao, laying down flares for an earlier traffic accident near Kualoa Regional Park, is fatally struck by a pickup truck.

SUSPECT: A 22-year-old man is arrested and released.

STATUS: Under review by city prosecutors, who received the case from police this month.

Aug. 26, 2001

FATALITY: Elizabeth Kekoa is killed when her van is struck by a car on the H-1 Freeway near Kaimuki. Police say the driver may have been racing.

SUSPECT: A 21-year-old man is arrested as the driver of the car and released.

STATUS: Under investigation by police.

Sept. 2, 2001

FATALITY: Lanette Acasia, 35, is killed when struck by a car while riding her bicycle on Kamehameha Highway outside Mililani.

SUSPECT: A man is arrested a half hour later, but later released.

STATUS: Under investigation by police.