BY LARRY GELLER – On Friday, July 15, 2011, U.S. District Court’s chief Judge Susan Oki Mollway considered a number of motions filed by the U.S. Department of Justice and by attorneys for Mike and Alec Sou, the defendants in the Aloun Farms human trafficking case that is planned to go to trial on July 27.
The case involves the alleged forced servitude of 44 Thai farm workers.
After jury selection, opening arguments are scheduled to take no more than 90 minutes in total.
The DOJ has filed a list of 52 witnesses it expects to call. Since many are Thai nationals who will require language interpretation, the DOJ representatives advised the court that they will need approximately three weeks to present their case. The defense attorneys expect that their witness rebuttals will require one week.
Judge Mollway expressed hope that the trial could wind up by Labor Day due to her own schedule and commitments. She put in place procedures by which the interpreters may, on their own initiative, consult with the Court should unusual language situations arise.
The motions heard Friday hinted at the complexity of carrying through a jury trial for a case that has attracted state-wide publicity due to a guilty plea that was subsequently thrown out.
While every person is presumed innocent until proven guilty, in this situation, the defendants pled guilty in January, 2010 under a plea agreement, but the agreement was thrown out in September and so they withdrew their guilty plea.
There was comprehensive coverage in the papers and television that is expected to complicate jury selection. Potential jurors may recall the details of the guilty plea and assume that the Sou brothers meant what they said. Others may assume that a person is guilty once they have admitted they are guilty.
It is rare that a plea agreement is thrown out. Newspapers reported, and potential jurors may recall, the saga of how the plea agreement broke down. For example, this snip from a story in the Star-Advertiser:
The sentencing hearing for the owners of Aloun Farms on forced-labor charges will continue in September because brothers Alec and Mike Sou refused to admit to committing acts to which they had pleaded guilty in January.
[Star-Advertiser, Aloun Farm owners deny threats, 7/20/2010]
Former Governors Ben Cayetano and John Waihee and others wrote letters to the Court on the Sou’s behalf to urge that sentencing be lenient. That also was prominent in the news. And then, after the plea agreement was thrown out, the DOJ filed additional charges against the Sous. All this was covered on TV, particularly by KITV, and in the newspapers and on-line media.
Under the plea agreement, the Sous pled to a single count of conspiracy to commit forced labor involving 24 of the 44 workers, bringing down their maximum federal sentence from 15 years to 5 years. The brothers also agreed to pay approximately $8,000 per worker in restitution, for a total of $192,000.
This money would assist the workers in making partial repayment of high recruitment fees they incurred in order to get jobs in Hawaii that allegedly paid much less than they were promised. But the court was slow in writing the checks, so when the defense attorneys entered a motion to withdraw the restitution, the court repaid it to the defendants, resulting in still more publicity.
At trial, there will be no reference made to the prior plea agreement under a court rule. This includes anything about the agreement itself, or about discussions or statements made about the agreement. Judge Mollway approved a motion to that effect on Friday, except that if something should be said that relates to the agreement, the statement may be subject to impeachment (her order on this is not yet published). Nevertheless, it’s clear that any juror familiar with the prior guilty plea could have the details in mind even as testimony is given.
Another complication is the pending criminal trial of Global Horizons officers and employees in a separate human trafficking case to be heard in Honolulu next year. Information related to that case is also to be excluded as a result of a motion heard on Friday. The exclusion is on the basis that the case has not been decided. Jurors, however, are likely to have read about this case as well, and draw conclusions because initially Aloun Farms contracted with Global Horizons for its labor needs, but then undertook to obtain labor on its own.
To allow for the possibility that a large number of jurors on the first panel may be dismissed, Judge Mollway will call a second panel to be ready on July 28 in case they are needed.
Background on the cases
For background on the Aloun Farms case, Google articles appearing on Hawaii Reporter, which initially broke the story and has followed it closely since.
The two cases together (Aloun Farms and Global Horizons) raise a number of issues related not only to the scourge of human trafficking, but to the basic viability of sustainable agriculture in Hawaii. Hawaii’s plantation farming was made possible essentially by the use of indentured servitude. The charges alleged in these two human trafficking cases (and in a large civil suit filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) concern labor practices in the present, not in the distant past.
The EEOC cases in particular will expose the involvement of additional farms. Each has allegedly profited from the use of what can be described as slave labor.
While the cases progress, the workers themselves have been forgotten by the media (except for Malia Zimmerman’s articles in Hawaii Reporter). Even though billionaires now own Maui Pineapple, for example, the plight of the workers has not been relieved, and many will lose their farms or property in Thailand. Many cannot return, and cannot be employed here. Most do not speak English. Some are ill but cannot receive medical assistance.
Additionally, the land under Aloun Farms is coveted for housing development. That situation is unrelated to the court cases but illustrates the uncertainty that Hawaii can ever become at least partially self-sufficient or food secure.