The State of Aloha

Fifteen years ago I had a bad case of senioritis. Classes had been reduced to a meaningless migration from one room to the next. The only way teachers kept order was by threatening to blacklist us from participating in the graduating ceremony later in the month.

No one wanted that; especially since they made us practice it. There we were in the middle of the pitch at the War Memorial Stadium under the blazing Central Maui sun. The tinny recording of Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” played on loop.

Gather under the stadium seats quietly, walk single file across the field, take your seat on a burning-hot metal folding chair. Now sit there until it was time to walk up to the makeshift stage and receive your pretend diploma.

Graduation season was upon us. Flower trees had been raided. Seemed like every garage and sewing room was busy making lei for the graduates.

I have little recollection of the actual ceremony that night. Hundreds of friends and family filled into the stadium cheering and shooting off air horns. The boys wore maroon gowns and the girls wore light blue. We sat there facing them on the same metal folding chairs. The floodlights were on like it was a sporting event. I can’t even tell you what Mrs. Boteilho – our beloved English teacher – told us in our commencement address. All I do remember is that she turned her back on our parents and the crowd and addressed us, the graduates.

High school graduation is a big deal here in the islands. I’ve been to other schools after Baldwin. The programs and institutions on the Mainland for college and law school were certainly much bigger and had older traditions, but my high school graduation will be the most memorable. Much to the chagrin of my parents and colleagues in later years, I didn’t go to my law school and university graduation ceremonies.

Graduating from Baldwin High School was a gloriously chaotic affair. After the formal ceremony, the crowd made its way down to the field. It was madness.

Everyone was trying to find each other. We stood about the stadium covered in thousands of lei. I felt like some kind of midyear Christmas tree being decorated by my closest friends and family. I somehow managed to find my parents and brother, and then came an onslaught of lei from just about every classmate and friend. It got really hot and I was sweating through the polyester gown, but I didn’t care.

I had a variety of lei made from carnations, plumeria, maile leaves, silk, ribbon, yarn and balloons in our school colors. I saw the more practical garlands made of saimin packets, cans of soda and candy. Some of my classmates had so many that they covered their faces and shoulders. Parents and younger siblings had to be recruited to carry the excess lei.

The overwhelming number of lei makes graduating here one of the best parts about going to school in the islands. For now, there was just the ceremony – and the lei. When I look back on it, I realize that all of those people taking the effort to bring me a lei on graduation night was a big deal. What better way to show that you care than with a lei at graduation?

A single graduate has the support of the entire community. Parents, family, friends, coaches and teachers all have contributed to the development of a new member of the community.

It marks the start of adulthood. Most high school graduates are either 17 or 18. They are considered – for just about every intent and purpose – an adult under the eyes of the law (except for drinking alcohol and renting a car).

Somehow I was deemed responsible enough, smart enough and competent enough to sign contracts like leases and take out loans. It meant that I could enter the workforce, continue with school, or do a little bit of both. Most importantly, it was all up to me. I was no longer legally required to attend school.

But the truth is that the legal age into adulthood is an arbitrary one. Just because the law sees no distinction between 18-year-old graduates and people in their 30s or 40s doesn’t mean there isn’t one. Everything is new to them in the workplace or in college. But all that is down the road for them. I’m sure they’re going to learn that in some way or another.

Tonight, Baldwin’s class of 2014 will gather at the same War Memorial pitch I stood at 15 years ago and proud parents and family members will sit on the same bleachers and cheer them on. I have no doubt that they will be covered in lei, too.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer who grew up on Maui. His email is “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Ilima Loomis’ “Neighbors.”

The State of Aloha

In a criminal trial, government prosecutors try to convince a jury that there is evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused committed the charged crime. If the jurors unanimously agree there’s enough evidence, they are supposed to find the accused guilty. And after that, the jury is excused. The case goes back to the judge to sentence the accused. In many cases, judges sentence folks to probation. In others, they are sent to prison. But there is one sentence that is completely out of bounds: death.

It wasn’t always like that. The death penalty was a part of life in Hawaii. In fact, the first jury trial, in 1826, was a capital case. Although the accused was found not guilty, he was executed anyways. The governor ordered that he be publicly hanged.

Hangings were the preferred method of execution when the death penalty was around. Executions were rare. In a span of more than 100 years, only 75 people were hanged. And executing haoles was even more uncommon. There is just one confirmed case of a white man being executed in Hawaii. The overwhelming majority were Filipino and Hawaiian.

By the 1920s, hangings took place in a room at the Oahu jail. On a January morning in 1944 – in the middle of the second world war – Adriano Domingo became the last person executed in Hawaii. Domingo, who was convicted of murder for stabbing a woman to death in a pineapple field on Kauai just four months before the execution, stood on the platform. A black bag was placed over his head. His arms and legs were bound and the trap door opened.

The death penalty was abolished in the islands in 1957. The trap door was cemented shut and the room at the Oahu jail became a dormitory at what is now called the Oahu Community Corrections Center. In doing so, we avoided highly polarizing controversies that are debated all over the country.

But now the death penalty has found another way back to Hawaii. Naeem Williams was convicted of murder last month. After hearing weeks of testimony, the jury found him guilty of murdering his 5-year-old daughter.

As tragic as those facts may be, there are many murder convictions in the state. But this case stands out for one reason: It took place on a military base, which allows the federal government to prosecute Williams for murder and seek the death penalty.

Now, the same jury that found him guilty has an even harder job. Jurors will determine whether Williams should be executed. The kind of evidence during this phase of the trial is very different. Jurors will be instructed to weigh aggravating and mitigating factors.

Prosecutors told the jury that the main aggravating factor in this case is vulnerability of Williams’ daughter. The defense is also preparing its case. Mitigating factors include considerations of Williams’ mental capacity or if he suffered from a severe mental or emotional disturbance. In the end, the decision on whether the offense requires Williams to lose his life rests with those jurors. If the jurors find that death is not warranted, he will still spend the rest of his life in prison.

If Williams – who, like Domingo and 74 before him, is not Caucasian – gets the death penalty, the details about when, how and where the execution would take place are yet to be determined. The federal government, however, does have the power to carry out the act here in Hawaii. But even if that were to happen, it would take a long time.

Inmates on death row have many opportunities to appeal to higher courts to review the decisions of the jury and the judge. It’s an important right. You can’t undo a death sentence. In many cases, it takes years. Look at Oklahoma’s recent debacle.

It took nearly 14 years before Clayton Lockett’s execution on April 29 at 6 p.m. Central time. Instead of a hanging, we have the lethal injection. The injection of top-secret chemicals is believed to be a humane way to kill another. It’s designed to put the person to sleep, then shut down the respiratory system and, finally, stop the heart from beating.

Lockett’s execution did not happen in that order. He writhed, moaned, convulsed, cried out, and 43 minutes after the injection died of a heart attack. Prison officials said that his vein had “blown” or even exploded.

This part of our criminal justice system has stayed out of Hawaii for more than 50 years. So are we really ready to revisit the death penalty? Are we ready to handle the long appeals, gut-wrenching decisions for jurors, and the risk of potential horrors at execution? The jury is – quite literally – still out on this one.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer who grew up on Maui. His email is “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Ilima Loomis’ “Neighbors.”