Some inmates seeking release are accused of violent acts

The number of inmates at Hawaii Community Correctional Facility was 234 as of Thursday. That’s 165 fewer inmates than the March 2 population of 395.

Retired Intermediate Court of Appeals Judge Daniel Foley, appointed as a special master by the Hawaii Supreme Court, is tasked with reducing that population further in an effort to prevent a possible spread of COVID-19 coronavirus in state’s jails and prisons.

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An order from the Hawaii Supreme Court, in an instruction to the lower court judges, states in part, “Release shall be presumed, unless the court finds that the release of the inmate would pose a significant risk to the safety of the inmate or the public.”

That doesn’t mean, however, that those released aren’t accused of violent acts.

James Bonham, a 66-year-old Captain Cook man facing a second-degree murder charge for the April 28 fatal shooting of his 45-year-old son, Joshua Bonham, was granted court-supervised release without cash bail by Kona District Judge Margaret Masunaga despite the objection of prosecutors.

That’s in contrast to Robert Merrill — a 61-year-old Hawaiian Paradise Park man with no prior criminal record — who’s charged with second-degree murder for the May 1 bludgeoning death of his 82-year-old mother, Betty Jean Merrill.

Merrill’s attorney, Brian De Lima, requested a reduction in Merrill’s bail from $1 million to $100,000, which was objected to by prosecutors. Hilo Circuit Judge Kanani Laubach maintained Merrill’s $1 million bail and ordered him to return to court June 2.

County Prosecutor Mitch Roth said his office received more than 100 motions seeking the release of inmates due to COVID-19, some of which were convicted for or accused of violent acts.

According to Roth, many pretrial releases occur during initial court appearances or bail hearings with no mention of COVID-19, however, so its difficult to quantify them as COVID-19 releases.

“I think some of the most questionable releases haven’t been on COVID-19 motions,” Roth said Thursday. “It’s been at bail hearings. And I think it’s important that the public understand that.”

Roth said the order from the Supreme Court changes the dynamics of how courtrooms and the Hawaii Paroling Authority operate, even if COVID-19 isn’t referred to in a motion or a hearing.

Below is a short list of inmates seeking release who are accused of violent acts.

• Malcolm Keith Utecht, a former Army sergeant and pretrial detainee charged with second-degree murder for the Jan. 7 fatal stabbing of 71-year-old Solomon Matthews in Matthews’ Fern Acres home, was denied release May 4 by Acting Hilo Circuit Judge Jeffrey Hawk.

His motion for supervised release related to COVID-19 was denied without prejudice, meaning Utecht is free to refile his request. Utecht, who is awaiting a determination about his mental fitness to stand trial, remains in HCCC in lieu of $553,000 bail.

• Corey Napoleon, 41, charged with attempted second-degree murder for the March 28, 2019, nonfatal shooting of his then-35-year-old estranged wife, Miya Sagucio Napoleon, in her family’s Hilo home, has a continued hearing scheduled for 1:30 p.m. June 3 before Hilo Circuit Judge Henry Nakamoto.

Attorneys for Napoleon, who is morbidly obese and bedridden, filed their motion for supervised release on other grounds, but have added COVID-19 to their request. Napoleon remains in the medical unit of Halawa Correctional Facility on Oahu in lieu of $250,000 bail.

• Reed Russell Martineau, also known as Matthew Wittenberg, is charged with attempted second-degree murder, first-degree robbery, unauthorized entry to a motor vehicle, auto theft, and two counts each of kidnapping, first degree robbery and first-degree terroristic threatening.

The charges stem from a violent carjacking Aug. 21, 2018, of Martineau’s then-77-year-old landlord in Kalapana Seaview Estates and assaults on the landlord, John Renauer, and Martineau’s then 52-year-old girlfriend, Leesa Callahan, who was also in the car.

Martineau’s motion for supervised release was denied April 17 by Nakamoto. Martineau’s next court date is set for 8:30 a.m. June 1, and he remains in custody at HCCC in lieu of $451,000 bail.

• Jake P. Branch, 35, of Kona, who led police on at least two vehicle chases before being apprehended last month in South Kohala, is facing 14 charges, including three counts of burglary of a dwelling during an emergency, two counts of leaving the scene of an accident, first-degree theft during an emergency, auto theft, resisting an order to stop and property damage.

At a bail hearing on May 5, Branch was granted supervised release by Kona Circuit Judge Melvin Fujino over the objection of prosecutors.

To check on the custody status of any Hawaii inmate, go to the state Department of Public Safety website at dps.hawaii.gov. Click on the green button on the right of the opening page that says SAVIN/VINE and follow directions.

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Members of the public also can register with SAVIN/VINE to get updates on the status of any Hawaii inmate.

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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