LIHUE — A Fifth Circuit Court jury found Cody Safadago guilty on all counts Friday.
Prosecutors spent the last two weeks proving that Safadago, 48, was responsible for the death of Kayla Huddy-Lemn, a 19-year-old Kapaa woman he killed in 2017, after getting drunk, stealing a truck and driving it at 88 miles an hour head-on into oncoming traffic.
Safadago, a former resident of Washington state, was convicted on felony charges for manslaughter, causing a fatal accident and car theft, as well as five misdemeanors — resisting arrest, driving under the influence of alcohol, reckless driving, inattention to driving and driving without a valid license.
The jury will decide next week whether Safadago can be sentenced to life in prison for manslaughter. The crime normally carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in jail, but due to the nature of the crimes and Safadago’s prior felony convictions, prosecutors are seeking extended terms of imprisonment on three counts: manslaughter, fleeing the scene of an accident, and unauthorized control of a propelled vehicle.
The guilty verdict came after just a few hours of jury deliberation. Closing arguments finished late Friday morning. Here are some of the highlights:
Deputy Prosecuting Sean Van Demark began his statements to the jury by describing the events leading to the fatal accident on April 27, 2017. Safadago’s night began, Van Demark said, hours before the crash, when he left the Big Save supermarket in Kapaa with a bottle of vodka and returned some time later “acting very differently.”
“At 9:18 p.m., Officer Hsu arrives, and this is what happened,” Van Demark told the jurors, turning to a projector in the courtroom. He played police body cam footage of Safadago talking with Kauai Police Department officer Hanson Hsu outside the grocery store.
The video showed Safadago cursing at Hsu and making several bizarre statements in a slurred voice, telling police he came from heaven and was dangerous. When Hsu asked if he was drunk, Safadago explained that his unusual behavior was due to stress because his sister was suffering from an illness he called “rat lung.” Hsu told Safadago to leave, and he did.
Van Demark said the defendant was seen again a couple hours later by a tow truck driver standing in a parking lot near Kuhio Highway in Kapaa. Safadago sped by in the stolen Nissan pickup that was seen moments later by a man driving to his night-shift job at Lihue Airport and the sister of a police officer. Both testified the truck passed them at a very high rate of speed, swerving in and out of traffic until colliding with Huddy-Lemn’s Mazda sedan.
“Shortly thereafter, officer Buratti arrives,” Van Demark said, again playing body camera footage for the jury, this time taken from former KPD patrol officer Michael Buratti, who arrested Safadago at the scene.
“Is that your truck?” Buratti can be heard saying in the opening seconds of the video.
“No!” Safadago yelled. “I don’t have a truck.”
Safadago, who stood near the side of the road where the Nissan truck had come to rest, had been trying to convince a nearby restaurant owner to give him a lighter for his cigarette. Several hundred feet down the highway, police and witnesses gathered around the crushed sedan containing Huddy-Lemn’s body. Safadago started running away when Buratti approached, and a chase ensued.
“All the defendant could focus on was the truck and distancing himself from the truck,” Van Demark said, noting that Buratti had only mentioned the crashed vehicle twice. “If he was the injured party, why did he run?”
Just as Buratti subdued Safadago, another police officer, Shawn Hanna, arrived. Van Demark played his body cam video for the jury as well, pausing to point out bruises and cuts on Safadago’s body that police and expert witnesses said were indicative of wounds found on drivers involved in a car accident.
“You see he has facial injuries. You see he has ankle injuries,” Van Demark said, pointing to bruises and small cuts Safadago told police were caused by debris from the accident that hit him as he walked by the road.
“He knew the risk, and he disregarded it,” Van Demark continued. “He made no attempt to go to that car. He did not check on the other driver.”
Van Demark concluded his closing arguments by reiterating a point he has made throughout the two weeks of proceedings, saying Safadago chose to drink, chose to steal a car and chose to drive it at reckless speeds.
“And as a result of all these actions, he did this,” Van Demark said, flipping the projector image to show a photograph of Huddy-Lemn’s demolished Mazda. “He took life away from somebody who had yet to live. He took all her choices away from her.”
Safadago’s attorney, Emmanuel Guerrero, approached the podium.
“You don’t like that guy. I can tell,” Guerrero said, facing the jury and pointing over his shoulder at Safadago. “None of us like him.”
“But that’s not what this case is about,” he continued. “This case is about the presumption of innocence. He cannot be found guilty simply because of bad character.”
Guerrero spent a couple minutes reminding the jury about instances from the police videos in which Safadago is seen behaving poorly.
“The question is not whether he’s a bad guy,” Guerrero said, after referring to his client as a drunk, a racist and a thief. “The issue is, you can only find Cody Safadago guilty if he was driving the truck — not that he ran, not that he stole a bottle of vodka, not that he called officer Buratti this and that.”
Guerrero then started painting a picture he has worked to develop since trial proceedings began on Aug. 13, when he started attempting to cast doubt on the thoroughness of the KPD’s investigation and the reliability of the officers who conducted it.
“The evidence. Where’s the evidence?” he asked.
“What about the floor mat? What about the door panel?” he asked, referring to the testimony of KPD’s criminalist, who said samples on the floor mat and door panel of the Nissan truck tested positive for human blood but were not analyzed at an outside lab. “Why not send it?”
Another sample from the interior of the truck was shipped to an independent laboratory on the mainland for further analysis and matched with a DNA sample taken from Safadago. A sample taken from the floor mat was also found to match Safadago’s DNA to a high degree of probability.
But Guerrero asked the jury to consider the possibility that the police investigation was tainted by either corruption or negligence, referring to some officers in the KPD’s traffic safety section as being part of “the good ol’ boy network” and calling their examination of the crime scene and evidence “sloppy” and “shoddy.”
He also said the KPD investigation focused too narrowly on Safadago and the officers involved presumed he was guilty from the outset.
“They got their guy,” Guerrero said. “They wanted him, and they got him.”
Van Demark agreed. He addressed the jury one final time before they started deliberating.
“The police do have their man,” he said. “And you do, too. He’s sitting right over there.”
Caleb Loehrer, staff writer, can be reached at 245-0441 or firstname.lastname@example.org.