HONOLULU — The possibility that former Hawaii soldier Naeem Williams could face execution is troubling for some folks in a state where the death penalty has not been imposed since 1944.
Joshua Cooper, director of the Hawaii Institute for Human Rights, said he wouldn't be surprised if those morally opposed the death penalty rise up in protest as the trial enters its penalty phase.
"The level of concern will grow as awareness increases," said Cooper, who teaches human rights at the University of Hawaii at West Oahu.
The territorial Legislature abolished the death penalty in 1957. But capital punishment is allowed under federal law, and prosecutors decided to pursue the case because the abuse happened at a Wheeler Army Airfield home.
UH law professor Williamson Chang expressed disappointment that the decision to proceed with a death penalty case was made in the first place.
"There's a strongly held belief in Hawaii that the death penalty is really immoral and not consistent with the values of society," he said. "The federal government doesn't respect our laws and should have accorded more sovereignty to our state."
It is rare for the U.S. government to seek the death penalty in a state where it is not permitted. Only seven of 59 inmates on federal death row are from states that didn't allow the death penalty at the time the sentence was imposed, according to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C.
Attempts to reinstate the death penalty have been proposed to the Hawaii state Legislature and rejected more than 15 times. The latest attempt was last year, when Sen. Sam Slom (R, Diamond Head-Kahala-Hawaii Kai) introduced bills to establish the death penalty for murder of a child under age 12, or murder combined with torture or sexual assault, or for multiple murders.
The last time the federal death penalty was approved for a Hawaii case was against Richard "China" Chong. But before he went to trial in 2000, he agreed to plead guilty to a 1997 drug-related murder and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
He died of an apparent suicide about three months later.
Chang said he finds it disturbing that the death penalty is being pursued here against a man of color. A zealous pursuit of death penalty cases against minorities is a primary reason it was abolished in Hawaii in the first place, he said.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, there were 49 executions in Hawaii before it was banned, many of them hangings for murder in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Almost all of those executed were Native Hawaiian, Chinese, Japanese or Filipino.
The 1929 case against Myles Fukunaga, who kidnapped and murdered the son of a Big Five businessman, galvanized the Japanese community against the death penalty after the 20-year-old was tried, convicted and sentenced to death a little more than two weeks after his arrest despite his insanity, Chang said. He was hanged that November.
The last civilian execution in Hawaii was that of Ardiano Domingo, a Filipino man who was hanged in 1944 for killing a woman with scissors in a Kauai pineapple field.
Some people here may feel a detachment from this case, viewing it as a military proceeding and not a local case, Chang said.
"Still, it's the idea that it's in this state and in these islands, where there is a certain moral code," he said.
Federal Public Defender Alexander Silvert said he was surprised there hasn't been more outrage in the community about this case. Silvert represents Delilah Williams, who avoided the death penalty by testifying against her husband.
"I would have hoped, as a child of the '60s and '70s, that there would have been more awareness and intolerance about what's going on," Silvert said. "It's disappointing because this is such an important and serious matter."
UH law professor Kenneth Lawson said the level of indignation likely has been muted in Hawaii because of the brutality of the crimes and the fact they were committed against a child.
What's more, many may feel removed from the case, viewing it as a dispute between the federal government and one of its employees.
"I get the impression that if this had happened to a regular resident of Hawaii, there would be outrage," he said.
Lawson said most states with the death penalty have organizations that follow the issue closely and regularly organize protests.
"This state hasn't had a death penalty case in decades," he said. "There is no organization against the death penalty because those cases are not here."
Lawson recalled working death penalty trials in Ohio.
"The protest was there," he said. "The marches were there. The demonstrations were there. Here? How do you mobilize something you don't have?"
Cooper said the Williams case is an opportunity to discuss the issue, adding, "The death penalty is a failed legal experiment on the wrong side of history."