Leniency questioned in prior sentencing of murder suspect

Representatives of the 5th Circuit Court and the County Prosecuting Attorney’s office disagree over the 2007 sentencing by Judge Kathleen Watanabe of a troubled Wailua man who now stands accused of second-degree murder after an Oct. 12 shooting death.

In January 2007, Payton Rapozo was arrested following an incident in which he threw a cup of gasoline on Kaua‘i Police Department officer Chris Gandeza, who had responded to a domestic disturbance call. Rapozo then threatened to light Gandeza on fire, going so far as to reach out and click the lighter, according to police reports, in an attempt to provoke the officer into shooting him, a phenomenon called “suicide by cop.”

Rapozo, who was subdued by a family member and then arrested, was initially charged with seven crimes, including attempted murder, which could have put the then-21-year-old behind bars for life.

An agreement between prosecutors and his attorney, Public Defender Ken Norelli, reduced the charges to first-degree attempted assault, a Class B felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison, and first-degree terroristic threatening, a Class C felony punishable by up to five more years, in exchange for Rapozo’s guilty plea.

Prior to sentencing, Norelli filed a written brief, requesting probation instead of a lengthy prison term, which included reference letters from Lloyd Miyashiro, a special education teacher at Kapa‘a High School, psychiatrist Gerald McKenna and Gordon Doo of the About Face and Forward March programs.

Doo, who helps economically disadvantaged and at-risk young adults find and keep employment, said Rapozo showed improvement during his time in the program.

“He just wanted somebody to write something positive for him, and that’s what I did,” Doo said in a phone interview Friday. “If somebody would ask me about anybody, should they be given a second chance, I’d say yeah. That’s just me.”

On July 12, 2007, Watanabe sentenced Rapozo to five years probation, which by law limited his prison term to a maximum of one year, rather than the 15 years he was potentially facing.

Judiciary spokeswoman Marsha Kitagawa says that Watanabe’s decision to grant probation was not too lenient, but was warranted by “extenuating circumstances” and supported by many interested parties.

“Given that Rapozo had no prior convictions, his psychological reports indicated he did not intend to hurt anyone but himself, and Ken Norelli, as well as the prosecuting attorney, the Probation Office, the warden and prominent community members provided information to the court in strong support of probation, the judge allowed the plea agreement,” Kitagawa said in an e-mail this week. “A 15-year prison sentence was (not) recommended by anyone, let alone the defense attorney, when, in fact, there was strong support for probation with no opposition from any factions.”

However, Prosecuting Attorney Craig De Costa said that is not true, claiming his office has documentation that it asked for a 10-year prison term in oral arguments in court. He noted that pre-hearing written briefs are not uncommon, but not required.

“I didn’t make a big deal out of her decision to grant probation (at the time) because judges get paid the big bucks to make hard decisions, and you don’t know what’s going to happen to a young person with problems,” De Costa said Friday. “But I hate when the judiciary points the finger back at us.”

Rapozo, now 23, was out on the street for less than a year before being taken back into police custody. Bail was set at $1 million following his arrest for the murder of his mother’s 43-year-old boyfriend, Antonio Torres, at the man’s Kawaihau Road home on Oct. 12.

At the preliminary hearing in District Court on Thursday, Rapozo’s attorney, Nelson Goo set up a case for self-defense and defense-of-others claims, pointing to threats that Torres made to Rapozo’s mother and sisters and a loaded shotgun found in a truck accessible to Torres on the day of the shooting.

“We’re not dealing with an angel here,” Goo said of Torres outside the Lihu‘e courthouse.

Rapozo will enter a guilty or not guilty plea in Circuit Court on Oct. 30. Chief Judge Randal Valenciano, not Watanabe, will hear the case.

Even if Goo’s self-defense argument is successful and Rapozo is found by a jury to be innocent of murder, he could still face significant prison time.

Rapozo is also accused of carrying or use of firearm in the commission of a separate felony, a Class A felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison, and illegal possession of a firearm, a Class C felony that could add five years imprisonment to the tally. The weapon used in the shooting was a .22-caliber revolver pistol of undetermined ownership, according to county spokeswoman Mary Daubert.

Furthermore, any conviction could be grounds for a revocation of his probation, bringing Rapozo’s 2007 convictions back into play and opening the door for the 15-year sentence he could have received at that time to be levied, at the discretion of a judge, in light of the new incident.

• Michael Levine, staff writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 252) or via e-mail at mlevine@kauaipubco.com

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