HONOLULU — As George Zimmerman’s second-degree murder trial for the killing of Treyvon Martin crawls to a close in Florida, Hawaii is in the midst of its racially charged murder trial.
Claims of self defense and the right to bear arms are central in both cases.
Zimmerman, a 29-year-old Hispanic who headed the neighborhood watch patrol in his Sanford, Fla., community, maintains he shot and killed the 17-year-old Martin, who was black, in self-defense. Immediately after the shooting, Zimmerman was accused of targeting Martin because of his race, and Florida’s conceal-carry law came under intense scrutiny.
In Hawaii, U.S. State Department Agent Christopher Deedy is on trial for killing 23-year-old Kollin Elderts following a confrontation at a fast-food restaurant. The second-degree murder trial started on Monday in Honolulu’s First Circuit Court.
Immediately after Deedy, a 29-year-old Arlington, Va., resident, shot and killed Elderts, a local minority, on Nov. 5, 2011, racial tensions flared, as did the debate over whether Deedy should have been allowed to carry his weapon while he was out drinking.
Deedy was in Hawaii with the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security to protect dignitaries including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama during the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation conference, an event that attracted 21 world leaders and 20,000 participants from Nov. 7-13, 2011.
At 2:30 a.m. on Nov. 5, Deedy clashed with Elderts in a Waikiki McDonalds restaurant after both had been out drinking with friends.
According to Deedy’s defense attorney Brook Hart, Deedy witnessed Elderts harassing Michel Perrine, another customer in the McDonalds restaurant.
“While at the cashier counter, Elderts began to verbally harass Perrine using racial slurs. Perrine asked Elderts to leave him alone, not to single him out, and stated words to the effect that he was a ‘local,’” a defense filing said.
There was a brief but escalating brawl that involved Deedy and Elderts and their friends inside the restaurant.
In court on Monday, the prosecution and defense told different versions of what came next.
Honolulu Deputy Prosecutor Janice Futa said: “The defendant is up and draws from his right rear hip area the gun. Kollin turns around and sees him and the defendant within three feet of Kollin Elderts and fires his gun. He misses. Kollin, now having been shot at by the defendant, lunges toward him reaching for the gun. They grapple in front of the counter and then two more shots ring out. After the shots, Kollin falls on top of the defendant onto the floor. The third bullet was fired. After the third bullet was fired, the gun jams.”
Defense attorney Hart said: “The evidence will show that he used a number of measured steps to try to sway Mr. Elderts, and Mr. Shane Medeiros (Elderts friend) for that matter, from their violent assault.”
Hart said the slur- and profanity-laced exchange between Elderts and Perrine got Deedy’s attention.
“These are now fighting words,” says Hart. “This is a threat of violence. This is what Deedy is trained to perhaps respond to, although he wasn’t here to respond to the laws of harassment or bullying. He’s a federal agent and his job is to serve the community.”
Hart said Deedy showed Elderts his State Department badge and credentials and Elderts responded: “What, you gonna shoot me? You got a gun? Shoot me. I’m gonna gut you.”
The prosecutor has painted Deedy as an inexperienced agent who consumed alcohol against State Department policy while carrying a firearm and “stuck his nose” into a situation in McDonalds “that was not his business.”
However, Hart said the defendant was not drunk and showed the jury video of him being arrested to bolster his claim.
Hawaii has a concealed-carry law, but typically only law enforcement officers and retirees are issued permits. However, Hart maintained the U.S. State Department authorized Deedy to carry a weapon at all times.
Deedy sustained several injuries to his face including a broken nose and pummeled jaw, which Hart said backed up Deedy’s claim that he drew his firearm in self defense. Deedy was taken to the hospital after complaining about his injuries. However, Deedy refused to take a blood-alcohol test.
A city autopsy report showed Elderts consumed marijuana and cocaine before he died and had an alcohol blood level of 0.12, well above the state’s legal limit for driving of .08.
He also had previous run in with the law, according to public records. In 2008, Elderts was charged with disorderly conduct, and in 2010, he was charged with a petty misdemeanor for operating a vehicle under the influence of an intoxicant.
The well-publicized trial is expected to take several weeks and could include as many as 100 witnesses.
The prosecutor warned in her opening statements that witnesses will offer different versions of what occurred and some, at that time of morning, were under the influence of alcohol. The prosecutor also said the surveillance videotape from McDonalds of the incident was “frustratingly fuzzy.”
HawaiiReporter.com joined Hawaii News Now and the Star Advertiser last year in a motion to view the McDonald’s surveillance tape of the shooting, but Circuit Judge Karen Ahn sided with the prosecutor who said pretrial publicity of what was on the tape could prejudice the jury and denied the motion. The defense also wanted the tape released.
The judge also sided with the prosecutor against Deedy on several other motions including his request to move the trial to U.S. District Court and to dismiss the case.
Outside the Honolulu courtroom, a group calling itself World Can’t Wait organized a protest demanding “justice” for Elderts. The group, which holds events in several cities, said on its website it aims to “stop the crimes of your government” and details their opposition to Deedy here.
Racial tensions have been brewing since shortly after the 2011 shooting, showing up in news interviews, letters to newspaper editors, court documents and protests.
Protesters from the World Can’t Wait group compared the case to that of the Trayvon Martin’s killing, claiming in Hawaii, a white agent attacked and killed a local minority.
It took prosecutors about 10 days to charge Deedy with second degree murder when, by the prosecutor’s own admission, there were more than 100 witnesses reporting different versions of the shooting.
Meanwhile, the debate over whether Deedy targeted Elderts for racial reasons or whether he should have used his firearm to defend himself and others continues both in and out of court.
Just like the George Zimmerman trial, in the end, it is the jury that must decide whether Deedy was justified in using lethal force.
Elderts supporters include family, friends and protesters who have followed Deedy to and from the courthouse.
Supporters of Deedy have launched a website, DeedySupport.com, in his defense.
The website says “Law enforcement officers should not be treated like murders when they protect the public.”