Hawaii appeals court vacates murder conviction, citing error

KAILUA-KONA — A Hawaii appeals court has vacated a man’s murder conviction, citing an error by a lower court judge who blocked a cross-examination and additional testimony that could have assisted the suspect’s case.

The Hawaii Intermediate Court of Appeals ruling issued on Aug. 31 vacated Brian Lee Smith’s conviction for a 2018 fatal shooting, West Hawaii Today reported Wednesday.

The appeals court sent the case to the the Third Circuit Court for further proceedings.

Smith was sentenced in June 2019 to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 15 years for second-degree murder in the June 2018 killing of Thomas Ballesteros Jr.

Prosecutors said Ballesteros and a friend, Nikolaus Slavik, were picking mangoes across the street from Smith’s residence.

Smith approached the men with a gun and, after a short exchange of words, fatally shot Ballesteros once in the head, authorities have said. Slavik was shot three times and Smith was shot in the upper thigh.

Smith testified Ballesteros had terrorized him by breaking into his home the night before the shooting and assaulting Smith’s roommate and stealing property.

Smith’s appeal argued Kona Circuit Court Judge Melvin H. Fujino erred by prohibiting the defense from cross-examining Slavik about an unrelated arrest and by preventing the defense from calling a woman to establish she and Slavik conspired to hide evidence.

The appeals court ruled the prohibition of the testimony prevented the jury from having sufficient information. The ruling also vacated Smith’s conviction for first-degree reckless endangering.

Smith was also sentenced to concurrent sentences of 10 and 20 years for prohibited ownership or possession of a firearm and carrying or use of a firearm in the commission of a felony.

The appeals court upheld the firearm convictions. The Department of Public Safety said Smith remained confined Tuesday at Halawa Correctional Center on Oahu.

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