Karen Ertell, 51, was raped and murdered in 2007 at her Ewa Beach home. Family Court must decide whether a teenage neighbor accused of the crimes will be prosecuted as an adult.
Court takes its time despite ‘impatience’
A teenager suspected in a killing could be charged as an adult
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In the past decade, nine of 10 juveniles charged with murder in Hawaii have been ordered to stand trial as adults.
But the judicial procedures for moving a murder case from Family Court to Circuit Court are complex and occasionally lengthy. That is why there has been no determination yet in the rape and murder of Karen Ertell last year in Ewa Beach.
The boy accused of the crimes, 15 at the time and arrested the next day, remains in custody.
But Family Court hearings in his case have been repeatedly put off, Ertell's family members and friends complain. The next hearing is Sept. 25.
"It's kind of frustrating," said Malanie McLellan, who found her foster mother's body on May 2, 2007. "It's hard."
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At least 16 months will pass after the rape and murder of Karen Ertell at her Ewa Beach home before a Family Court decides whether a teenage neighbor accused of the crimes will be prosecuted as an adult.
The next hearing in the case is scheduled for Sept. 25.
Family members and friends of Ertell, 51, expressed growing frustration last week over what they say have been repeated postponements.
"Myself and the family have pretty much lost all hope in anything ever happening to this guy," said Kevin Callahan, Ertell's boyfriend.
Callahan and Malanie McLellan, Ertell's foster daughter, found the woman's body with police on May 2, 2007.
McLellan gave birth to a son three weeks later and has since moved to Oregon.
"It's kind of frustrating," she said. "It's hard."
The state Judiciary acknowledged that most similar cases take only a few months once the prosecution files the waiver request to have the defendant tried as an adult.
"However, from time to time a more complex case may take longer to ensure that all the steps required by law are done correctly," Judiciary spokeswoman Marsha Kitagawa said, speaking generally about waiver cases. "It is part of a judge's solemn responsibility to ensure due process and that proper procedures are followed, even in the face of public impatience."
Because the Family Court proceedings are closed to the public, the reasons for the lengthy process are not clear, although the prosecutors and defense appear to be focusing on the youth's mental condition.
Some defense lawyers uninvolved in the case but familiar with confidential Family Court proceedings say the waiver decision is so critical that the judge wants to make sure that the ruling is correct, particularly if it involves the mental condition of the youth.
If convicted as a juvenile in Family Court, the teenager could be held until age 19. If convicted in adult court, he would face a life term with parole.
The teenager, 15 at the time of the offenses and arrested the next day, remains in custody.
Under state law a judge may order a youth to stand trial as an adult if "there is no evidence" that the youth can be committed to a mental institution.
It is a key issue because during the waiver hearings, the judge assumes the youth committed the offenses, which eliminates the need to call witnesses or submit evidence to support the charges, according to legal observers.
The presiding judge, Family Court Circuit Judge Frances Wong, referred questions to Kitagawa, who said she and Wong cannot talk about the confidential case, but spoke generally about Family Court waiver proceedings.
"The tendency to wrongly think the process is taking too long and to prejudge or second-guess what is happening in a confidential case is understandable because the court record and proceedings are closed to the public," Kitagawa said.
Jeffrey Hawk, the lawyer for the youth, was not available for comment, but said earlier this year that the case was being handled "as carefully and expeditiously as possible."
City First Deputy Prosecutor Douglas Chin said last week his office is prohibited from commenting.
Keith Shigetomi, a criminal defense lawyer who has represented juveniles in Family Court, said 16 months is unusually long but that he can understand delays, especially when dealing with mental issues.
"It would seem there may be conflicting reports, and therefore the court has to be certain of the facts before it can actually issue a ruling," he said.
Shigetomi also pointed out that in adult court, mental health issues can take a while to resolve.
For example, Adam Mau was charged with a triple murder near Tantalus Lookout in July 2006. More than 19 months later, a state judge declared him unfit to stand trial.
In the past decade, the Family Court ordered nine of 10 juveniles charged with murder to stand trial as adults, according to the Judiciary and lawyers.
State Public Defender Jack Tonaki said he knows that the Family Court wants to resolve waiver issues as quickly as possible.
"I think you have to assume there are legitimate reasons for a delay like this," he said.
Still, McLellan, the victim's foster daughter, and Callahan, the victim's boyfriend, are not pleased, especially when the ruling will decide only which court will handle the youth's prosecution.
"The trial itself will take forever," McLellan said.
Callahan said the hearing has been pushed back eight or nine times, most recently from June 10.
McLellan and other family members and friends urged state lawmakers to pass legislation that would require juveniles age 15 to 17 to automatically stand trial as adults if charged with murder. The measure died in committee.
"The system caters to the criminals," McLellan said. "It doesn't cater to the victims and the victims' families."