Coco Palms trial proves puzzling

Like many incidents in courtrooms where a situation erupts suddenly into a physical struggle, an interruption at Friday’s session of the trial to decide whether Native Hawaiians who have occupied the Coco Palms Resort property in Wailua should be thrown off the land arose suddenly.

During the morning session, in which the legendary Coco Palms performer Larry Rivers was being asked a seemingly endless series of questions completely unrelated to the case, the courtroom audience grew restless.

First, Punohu Kekaualua, of Wailua, made a remark out loud questioning the judge’s authority, for which he was ejected and his cell phone confiscated. His mother, 70-year-old Debra Kekaualua, of Anahola, came to his verbal defense and she, too, was ejected.

A half hour or so later, when court reconvened after a recess, Punohu Kekaualua got into an argument with a court bailiff about whether he had been thrown out of court for the entire day’s session. Court personnel checked with Judge Michael Soong, who told them both Kekaualuas were banished all day.

But Debra Kekaualua had different ideas. She spoke up, objecting loudly to her son being thrown out of court. Bailiff Lee Jeal decided he had heard and seen enough. He ordered all spectators to leave the courtroom. But before people could reach the doorway, he walked into the back corner of the very last bench, where Debra Kekaualua was sitting.

As she continued her verbal protest, Jeal picked her up and, as she struggled, carried her a few feet and then appeared to drop her back onto the bench. Things got really ugly after that.

Angrily, Jeal summoned additional uniformed security officers from the Hawaii Department of Public Safety — the sheriff’s office. They succeeded in getting everyone out of the courtroom and closed and locked the door.

But it wasn’t over yet.

From the hallway, Debra Kekaualua could be heard screaming. She was being, as the incident could be pieced together later, handcuffed and taken to a holding cell.

By this point, the tension in the courtroom and the hallway was palpable and threatened to get out of control of court personnel. Kauai Police Department officers were called. Since the courthouse is directly across the street from police headquarters, KPD arrived within a few minutes, in force — five patrol cars and about 10 officers, including at least one lieutenant.

Debra Kekaualua emerged from the courthouse, having been freed by the court security officers. She was bleeding from both wrists, as well as her ankles. She said she sustained the injuries when she was cuffed and removed. She said she was told no charges would be filed against her. She went off to Wilcox Memorial Hospital.

As incidents in courthouses that get a little out of hand go, this one was unusually unfortunate. Jeal might have chosen an action different from picking up a very slightly built older woman and then dropping her as a couple of dozen spectators looked on and shouts of indignation became deafening. The optics, as they say, could probably not have been worse.

It being 2017, the incident was captured by numerous cell phone videos shot by spectators, getting to Facebook and other social media outlets within minutes.

The Garden Island’s Bethany Freudenthal caught the action on video, as well.

KPD officers later questioned witnesses after Debra Kekaualua complained she had been assaulted. They said they would review witness accounts to determine if any law enforcement action was required. There was no immediate announcement of whether the court or the sheriff’s office would conduct internal investigations.

The episode could be just another distraction in a case that appears to be proceeding in parallel universes. The plaintiffs —Tyler Greene and Chad Waters, the would-be redevelopers of Coco Palms — argue that the Native Hawaiian occupiers are on their property illegally and must be evicted under applicable Hawaii and United States law.

The defendants, Noa Mau Espirito and Kamu Hepa, argue that Kingdom of Hawaii land use law should prevail and they have repeatedly questioned whether the court has jurisdiction. They back that argument up by citing, among many other things, so-called royal patents, ownership documents involving land, awarded during the Kingdom days. They claim ownership of the property.

Unfortunately, that ignores the judge’s reality, which is that he has no choice but to apply applicable state law, which, experts in Native Hawaii law have said, may render the royal patents essentially meaningless.

Confoundingly, Judge Soong has ruled he has no jurisdiction over whether the Coco Palms developers hold legal title to the property, which, he said, would need to be decided by another judge in another court.

Coco Palms, on the other hand, argues that establishing they have a legal title is unnecessary since all the resort property needs to prove is they have a deed and title insurance and are in legal possession.

Under Hawaii law, there is apparently sound basis for this seemingly incongruous division of authority between two courts. But this is one example of how our legal system may make perfect sense to lawyers and judges, but leaves ordinary lay people puzzled. To put it mildly.

So it is, perhaps, not entirely surprising that Friday’s incident boiled over into a 70-year-old woman being picked up, then dropped, by a bailiff in the courtroom where the case is being tried as the proceeding devolved.

Many people have trouble understanding how the court system works. When the elements of disputing the jurisdiction of that court system mix with what was, at the very least, an undignified response to a woman expressing her opinions critical of the court, it is little wonder that the episode deteriorated so completely, and so quickly.

So in about 10 minutes on a Friday morning, disagreement over what the law is and what it means collided with operation of a court system many people simply don’t understand.


Allan Parachini is a former journalist and PR executive. He is a Kilauea resident.

  1. jks December 30, 2017 6:26 am Reply

    Its not confusing. Just another wanna be Hawaiian Al Sharpton.

  2. Makaala Kaaumoana December 30, 2017 6:37 am Reply

    Thank you for this cogent report on this case and specific incident. These observations and reporting serve the public well as we all learn the system and try to understand the process of the legal system. Whether we agree on authority and jurisdiction or not, having accurate reporting will be key to a correct outcome.

  3. Jake December 30, 2017 7:40 am Reply

    First, is it any surprise why nothing gets done in government? After this drama – NO OBSERVERS in Court. Let them have their drama in the parking lot.

    Second, and I know it is still 2017 where everyone is a Victim, but laws and rules are NOT created to be enforced based on age, gender, having a bad night, race, or ethnic background. If you are asked to stop your childish outbursts or leave the court, ah, then you leave. If not, then I don’t care if you are 70 years old, a woman, have some medical condition……JUST LEAVE YOU DRAMA QUEEN! Stop making excuses
    Allan for this woman.

    Let me guess…..her visit to Wilcox was paid by the taxpayers. I don’t care if she qualifies for Medicare…..she should have paid out of pocket for her injuries, ah, wait for it,…..created by her breaking the rules in the court.

    These adult children need to get a job, take care of their family, and stop being a drain on the public taxpayers.

  4. manongindashadow December 30, 2017 8:23 am Reply

    In a group of spectators in the courtroom, “why didn’t they have KPD Officers present?” Especially on the first eruption from couple spectators.
    As for the bailiff, he is a sheriff of the court. Which I can understand him hearing enough and cleared the courtroom. If someone refuse to leave he(bailiff) has the right to walk/carry the person out.
    From the story above, “Ms Kekaualua is a well built woman!” It’s only natural a woman of her built squirming like a little child. Any one carrying her would drop her. Then, when handcuffs and ankle cuffs where applied the more one moves the more the cuffs get tighter. On that note, the more Ms. Kekaualua squirmed the tighter it(the (cuffs) got and caused her to harm herself and in the end results cut and bleed at the wrists and ankles.
    In short, with Ms. Kekaualua’s remarks in some Letters to the Editor in the Garden Newspaper are unruly. Court should have not allow anyone in. It should have been a closed door hearing.

  5. uncleaina December 30, 2017 9:49 am Reply

    Hold up Alan – this is a court of law. No one is allowed to be disrespectful and disruptive in the courtroom- that’s why the Bailiff is present. Debra K has a long long long history of being disruptive and she was given multiple chances to chill out yet she chooses to constantly be a jerk. In fact she isn’t a party to this matter and is present simply to be obnoxious and scream over anyone she disagrees with. It’s funny that she claims to live in Anahola- because she lives in a giant expensive house in the Homesteads. She’s not native Hawaiian and she’s harming their causes. I guess my question is: did anyone who DID cooperate with the bailiff get hauled off – or was it just her? Because if she would have cooperated and been respectful towards the Court I’m sure she wouldn’t have had any problems at all. Funny and sad how she’s the focus of these stories rather than the topic of land ownership. She isn’t a party to this legal matter at all.

  6. harvey December 30, 2017 10:49 am Reply

    Allan Parachini has a clear bias and is lacking in journalistic objectivity regarding this case. His views should be taken for what they are: left-wing activism.

  7. anony mouse December 30, 2017 11:01 am Reply

    You don’t get to operate devices like cell phones in a court room.

    You don’t get to speak in a courtroom if you’re not a party in the case. A courtroom is not a place for protests, free expression, etc.

    If you persist in doing the above, especially to do things like question the judge’s authority, you’re removed and/or arrested.

    This is an ejectment case. It’s comparable to a landlord-tenant eviction, but it’s saying the “tenant” never had permission to be there in the first place.

    If property title comes up as an issue, it’s really a real estate case. Those go to circuit court. In your standard “eviction,” a tenant usually does not say that the landlord doesn’t really own the property where they were living.

    Those with legitimate title disputes often are able to get the help of the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation. But it doesn’t look like they’re assisting with this one…

  8. Reverend Malama Robinson December 30, 2017 11:17 am Reply

    Hey Allen….

    Try to get comprehend this…


  9. Felicia Cowden December 30, 2017 11:58 am Reply

    Restorative Justice for the Crimes of Colonization are not the purview of the court system; in fact it is designed to protect and perpetuated them. Judge Soong is in the difficult position of moderating the very limited discussion of who has the rights to the possession of land as it is viewed as a financial commodity, rather than a cultural/spiritual responsibility.

    With the exception that the police were called by the people feeling bullied by the court, this article works to frame there is an important philosophical question beneath the surface issue in this case. It is natural that there is tension in a courtroom that is designed with a legal bias to support a financial structure rather than a human culture.

  10. Debra Kekaualua December 30, 2017 12:53 pm Reply

    We dont understand how it is that there is so much corruption federal state and county, united states, lost their integrity H-bomb! THEY are the first terrorists that they have now “pods” all over the planet, supported by USA corporate audacity. Lou Jeal had no clue that i simply was going to leave via the one pointy finger, come here motion. I was kidnapped inside locked doors, screaming the pain combined freakout emotions, not wrapping myself around what just happened. I eventually was released escorted by five sheriff, one of which was retiring and i was his last allowance to be set free without charges, i walked around from the south side of courtroom shocked to see everyone milling around being interviewed by six to eight PD and their vehicles. NOTED, all cept one are not from here and have NO clue what politically heavy is coming to pass after 125-years of occupation u.s. militaropoliticocorporates. THERE is no such thing as a TAX MAP KEY, and you might want to check with the title insurance companies that homeowners must pay, have them return your paying them, due to their INability to find CLEAR title. Lastly, Soong keeping saying his court had No jurisdiction, yet the referral to the court that COULD determine title issues could be clarified! I have to ask why he neva?, just kept riding and smirking and having his court goons crackhead action.

  11. Brian Egan December 30, 2017 3:44 pm Reply

    Article byline: “Allan Parachini is a ‘former’ journalist and PR (public relations) executive” … If Allan Parachini isn’t a journalist anymore, why does The Garden Isle publish Allan Parachini’s slant on what happened at courthouse? …Who DOES Allan Parachini work for?

  12. MisterM December 30, 2017 8:12 pm Reply

    Watched the video and Lee Jeal needs a criminal defense attorney asap. It was assault. And he should be fired, not just for the assault, but for his.unprofessional actions and intimidation.

    So what are the DA and the Police Chief going to do? Just pretend an assault didn’t happen in that courtroom? If it were the other way around, you know that person would be charged (and jailed) immediately. That that jerk then handcuffed Ms. Kekaualua is outrageous. All Jeal did was escalate the situation by being a thug with a badge.

  13. James Kuroiwa December 31, 2017 8:18 am Reply

    The Coco Palms trial is not puzzling. The confusion was created by the decision of Judge Michael Soong earlier in 2017, “that the property ownership has not yet been fully determined.” The Coco Palms Hui is the owner of the title of the property.

  14. HeiHei808 December 31, 2017 9:47 pm Reply

    The bystanders not giving testimony should have kept their traps shut. You were warned Debra, you got what was coming. You want to act like animals in court, you get treated like animals. Good Riddence.

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