Man charged with murder mistakenly freed, back in custody

HONOLULU — A man charged with murder and mistakenly released from a Hawaii jail is back in custody, authorities said Friday.

Brian Lee Smith called police from a pay phone Thursday night and told them where he was, Hawaii County police spokesman Alan Richmond said.

The state Department of Public Safety announced Thursday that authorities were looking for Smith after he was mistakenly released from a jail on the Big Island Tuesday.

Smith was charged with murder in the June shooting death of 42-year-old Thomas Ballesteros Jr. Smith pleaded not guilty at an arraignment July 20. Trial is scheduled for November.

Hawaii County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Mark Disher said prosecutors don’t expect to charge Smith with escape. “Because the jail released him, I do not believe at this time there’s sufficient information to charge escape,” Disher said Friday.

Smith’s attorney Jason Kwiat said Thursday there was a mix-up at Hawaii Community Correctional Center in Hilo “for whatever reason” and they released his client. Kwiat said he was trying to figure out whether the release was valid when Smith was in contact with him.

Prosecutors learned the release was a mistake Thursday morning, Kwiat said. He couldn’t immediately be reached Friday.

U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, who is running for governor, used Smith’s release to criticize Gov. David Ige’s administration. She compared it to a January alert Hawaii sent mistakenly warning the public that a missile was headed for the islands. She also drew parallels with how the state was slow to notify the public about a man who fled to California from a Hawaii psychiatric hospital where he was committed after being found not guilty by reason of insanity in a woman’s killing.

“Once again the Ige administration has shown a lack of urgency and total disregard for the public’s right to know,” Hanabusa said in a statement.

Ige said he was “upset and deeply concerned” about Smith’s mistaken release, calling it another blow to an island that’s dealing with a lava flow and mourning the recent shooting death of a police officer. Ige said the director of the public safety department will oversee the investigation.

Public Safety Director Nolan Espinda told reporters Friday he regrets the error and vowed to get to the bottom of what happened.

Jail staff “enacting the release … believed they had done so correctly,” he said. Officials didn’t realize it was a mistake until Thursday morning. Espinda said his department didn’t put out a news release informing the public that authorities were searching for Smith until the afternoon because officials were trying to figure out what happened.

“Given the opportunity to go back into time, we wouldn’t have made the error to begin with,” he said.


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