KAILUA-KONA — The probe into the mistaken release five months ago of an accused murderer is ongoing, but the Department of Public Safety says it has worked to modify and strengthen procedures to prevent a repeat of the flub.
DPS Director Nolan Espinda appeared before the state Senate Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday to present his department’s proposed budget when lawmakers asked for an update on the investigation into July’s erroneous release of Brian Lee Smith.
“The changes we’ve made regardless of the findings of the investigation are significant,” Espinda told lawmakers.
Brian Smith is facing numerous charges, including second-degree murder, for a June 23 shooting on Painted Church Road in Honaunau. The incident left Thomas Ballesteros Jr. dead, and Smith and another man with gunshot wounds.
After being indicted July 9, Smith’s bail was set at $1.15 million, but he was mistakenly released from Hawaii Community Correctional Center on July 24. Officials didn’t realize it was a mistake until the morning of July 26. Smith turned himself in that evening.
He remains in custody in lieu of $2 million bail pending an April trial.
The probe into Smith’s release is winding down. However, initial findings of the investigation indicate it was near impossible to pinpoint where the document transmission broke down resulting in the Honaunau man’s July 24 release.
“The courts insist they provided it and we have no reason to believe otherwise, and none of us are pointing fingers at each other,” DPS spokeswoman Toni Schwartz told West Hawaii Today on Wednesday. “The Department of Public Safety is committed to continuously re-evaluating and assessing our practices and will continue to work collaboratively with our Judicial partner to make improvements.”
The Public Safety Department/HCCC said over the past five months it internally has made significant improvements that include filling civilian records positions, creating new Adult Corrections Officers posts, training both civilian and uniform staff in records, intake and transportation, and initiating a pilot program with the 3rd Circuit for the electronic transmission of court orders.
“As we’ve expressed earlier, the current methodology in transmitting all court documents is a hand-to-hand process throughout the state — an antiquated process that has its glitches and the delivery of those documents doesn’t occur as anticipated,” Espinda told lawmakers Tuesday.
Espinda outlined specific changes to policies and procedures.
“We’ve re-instituted the open line to the Attorney General’s office for any conflict in existing documentation where clerical staff provide legal interpretation,” the director said.
A pilot program has also been initiated with 3rd Circuit Court for the electronic transmission via email of court orders pertaining to bail in the Circuit Court.
In addition, the department has been working with the Judiciary to streamline the process of receiving court orders and calendars, which is ongoing.
Now, court calendars are faxed to Hawaii Community Correctional Center one to two days before Circuit Court hearings. When add-on calendars are faxed, the court clerks call HCCC to inform them of the update. Sheriffs are also given a physical copy of the calendar.
“The improvements are a two-sided improvement — not just us doing what we do better but us collaborating with the Judiciary,” Espinda said Tuesday to lawmakers.
The Judiciary appreciates the efforts of public safety as the two departments continue to discuss how best to provide access to justice for everyone involved, said Jan Kagehiro, director of Communications and Community Relations for the Hawaii State Judiciary.
West Hawaii Today has requested from DPS the past 12 months of erroneous releases and failed number of transports from HCCC to 3rd Circuit Court in Kona. Those stats have not yet been provided. However, the newspaper has determined that at least two other people have been erroneously released since Smith, including one just days after he turned himself in.