2 Maui men found guilty of federal hate crimes

Nov. 18 (Reuters) – A jury on Thursday found two native Hawaiians guilty of a federal hate crime, eight years after they beat up a white man who bought a home in their remote Maui village.

A jury on Thursday found two native Hawaiians guilty of a federal hate crime, eight years after they beat up a white man who bought a home in their remote Maui village.

US District Judge J. Michael Seabright ordered the detention of Levi Aki Jr. and Kaulana Alo-Kaonohi pending their sentencing on March 2. Both men have been charged with hate crimes and face up to 10 years in prison.

As they were escorted out of court in handcuffs, about a dozen family members cried and said goodbye. “I love you, Brah,” said a man. “Mom loves you,” said one woman, as the toddler in her arms said, “Bye daddy.”

“My life is at stake,” Aki said in an interview with the Honolulu Star advertiser before the verdict was announced. “I’ve stayed out of trouble ever since. I’m a big teddy bear,” he said. “I have faith that everything will change for the better.”

The charges stemmed from an incident in 2014 in which Alo-Kaonohi and Aki assaulted Christopher Kunzelman, a white Arizona man who had bought a foreclosed home in their home village of Kahakuloa. The state charged both men with assault and dropped hate crime charges. They pleaded no argument, Alo-Kaonohi pleaded assault, and Aki pleaded a terrorist threat. And after settlements in 2019, the two were sentenced to four years of probation.

The federal indictment, filed seven years after the attack, claimed he was racially motivated. As of Thursday afternoon, the multiracial jury agreed that both men attacked Kunzelman because of the color of his skin. The men had pleaded not guilty on January 19, 2021. (Originally scheduled for March 2021, the trial has been postponed multiple times due to concerns surrounding COVID-19.) Defense attorneys for Alo-Kaonohi and Aki argued that the men were motivated not by racial animus but by Kunzelman’s entitlement and disrespect.

The attack happened in February 2014 in Kahakuloa, a rural neighborhood a 45-minute drive northwest of Kahului down a narrow, winding road. Kunzelman bought a house on the bay there, unseen, for $175,000. He said that a Hawaiian woman appeared in his dreams asking for help in her garden and persuaded him to buy the property.

When he arrived he found a locked gate blocking access to a road leading to the property, so he cut the lock and drove down in what he says was a legal easement, wrote Kaulana defense attorney Salina Kanai Alo-Kaonohi, in a brief.

Alo-Kaonohi and Aki believed Kunzelman was trespassing on their private road without easement rights, Kanai wrote. She declined to comment Thursday afternoon. Lynn Panagakos, who represented Aki, did not respond to a request for comment.

Video cameras Kunzelman mounted on his Land Rover captured parts of the incident as the defendants approached Kunzelman, but the attack on top of the home’s porch is not pictured. At least six times in the video, they said they were upset that Kunzelman cut the locks.

Federal prosecutors alleged that Aki gave Alo-Kaonohi a shovel, which he used to hit Kunzelman on the head. Aki himself then hit Kunzelman with the shovel, punching and hitting him, leaving him unconscious, and then kicking him repeatedly in the ribs, according to prosecutors.

Kunzelman was diagnosed at a hospital with a concussion, head trauma, and broken ribs. He could not be reached for a comment.

Hate crime charges can carry a higher penalty than assault, but require prosecutors to show not only what happened, but why.

Two out-of-state prosecutors experienced in civil rights and hate crime cases, Tara Allison and Christopher Perras, joined Hawaii-based Assistant US Attorney Chris Thomas on the case. Allison successfully prosecuted the four former Minneapolis police officers involved in the 2020 death of George Floyd in a federal civil rights case.

Perras worked prosecuting hate crimes against three men who killed Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia in 2020 and were convicted in February.

Prosecutors alleged that the defendants called Kunzelman an “(expletive) haole” and “whitey”; said he was “too (expletive) white” and “the wrong (expletive) color”; and that no “white man” could ever live there. In the video recording, the only clear utterance of the word “haole” was as Aki told Kunzelman, “Use your (expressive) head. You’re a haole, eh?

A small number of white residents live in Kahakuloa, and one of them spoke to the star advertiser in August on condition that his name not be used. “I cross 13 properties to get to mine and I made sure that each of the local families agreed before we built our road in here and that was 40 years ago,” he said.

Prosecutors did not respond to a request for comment.

“The jury’s verdict affirms that the rule of law serves to protect all people in our community from malicious attacks, regardless of the color of their skin,” said US Attorney Clare E. Connors in a press release. “When people commit violent crimes against someone out of hatred of the victim’s race, the Department of Justice ensures they face criminal penalties in court.”

“This case underscores our work to ensure that everyone, regardless of race, feels safe in their own community without fear of retribution or violence,” FBI Special Agent in charge Steven Merrill said in the press release.