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Public Defender Fiaui says he believes some inmates have been wrongly accused

Public Defender, Douglas Fiaui during his confiration hearing earlier this month. [SN file photo]
All his office can do is ‘appeal to the court’

Public Defender, Douglas Fiaui says he believes that there are inmates wrongly accused and serving time in jail, but the Public Defender’s Office does its best to defend its clients in the local criminal justice system.

Fiaui made the comment during his recent Senate confirmation hearing responding to several questions from Sen. Paepae Iosefa Faiai, who raised some very pointed questions to cabinet appointees since the confirmation process began on Jan. 30 and completed last Friday.

Paepae asked whether Fiaui was ever a prosecutor, to which the newly confirmed Public Defender first explained that he spent two years in the Public Defender’s Office, followed by four years as a legal counsel in the Governor’s Office (during the last four years of the Togiola Administration), and in the last four years, back at the PD’s Office.

Asked if he wants to be a prosecutor some day, Fiaui responded, “I like defending people, I like defending people’s rights. I don’t think I have the demeanor and the mentality for… a prosecutor.”

He recalled for senators the time he was in law school and took a post at a prosecution clinic, overseen by an attorney with the Honolulu Prosecutor’s Office. “So I had the opportunity to prosecute people. It wasn’t a good experience for me. I didn’t enjoy doing it,” Fiaui told senators. “It required me to prosecute people for money that they didn’t have, and it wasn’t what I wanted to do.”

He also recalled that in the Honolulu Prosecutor’s Office, there were pictures on the wall — “they call them the ‘top gun’ [prosecutors] with the most convictions.”

He said, “To me, that’s not something to celebrate,” adding “I think when people are convicted everybody loses - we lose members of our society to prison, families lose their family member, it’s a sad case.”

“So I don’t think I could ever be a prosecutor,” Fiaui declared.

Before the PD’s Office plea bargains a case with the government, “do you think, you gave your utmost ability that everything was brought forward to make that decision?” Paepae asked, to which Fiaui responded, “We do our best to investigate the facts of the case before we negotiate with the government.”

He explained that an investigation involves talking with witnesses, talking to their client, examining the evidence — collected and held at the department of public safety — and visiting the scene of a crime.

“We do those things before we can advise our client,” he said. “In order to advise someone (the client), you have to know the case, [and] what the evidence is.”

Paepae then asked if the defense “doesn’t lose any sleep”, if someone is “falsely accused and locked up” at the Territorial Correctional Facility.

“I do think that there are people who are falsely accused, but I think that is rare. And I think that’s a good thing. If everyone who is accused was innocent, it would be a terrible situation,” Fiaui responded.

“So do you think that somebody who is falsely accused is locked up right now?” was Paepae’s follow up question and Fiaui responded, “I think so, I have several clients...” Before Fiaui could complete the sentence, Paepae quickly asked, “So what are you going to do?”

“I fight as hard as I can for these people. I argued to juries, I argued in front of judges, we do the best that we can,” Fiaui explained. “We appeal the decisions that go against our clients. That’s the way the system works.”

Paepae said that is very important for the defense, “if you have that ‘gut feeling’ that somebody that is locked up is falsely accused.”

 Fiaui was not asked and he didn’t offer any example of cases where an individual is wrongly accused and jailed.

The Alataua senator, along with his colleagues urged Fiaui and his office to continue to protect the rights of individuals who go before the local criminal justice system.

Asked by the committee if the PD’s Office has a sufficient number of attorneys to represent their clients, Fiaui said his office currently has 4 attorneys. “I think for now, it’s sufficient,” he said, and compared that to the about seven attorneys — or prosecutors — at the Attorney General’s Office criminal division.

However, he commented, “We handle an excess of 95% of the criminal cases filed on island,” adding that if compared, their 4 attorneys to the prosecutors seven, “I don’t know if there’s equality in that.”

Asked by another senators if the PD’s Office still gets cases for individuals charged with sex crimes, Fiaui said yes and pointed out that assault, burglary and sex crimes are the top three criminal cases that come through his office.

“There’s still definitely a problem with that in the community and we see those people come to us,” Fiaui said referring to sex crime cases.

He also reminded senators that cases handled by the PD’s Office are assigned to them by the court to defend those who are accused of crimes — both adult and juvenile defendants.