"Supporting the Law Enforcement Agencies of our State, and helping to educate and empower the public for a safer community."

     In the midst of countless hours of investigation, painstaking analysis, numerous questions and evasive answers, testimony, cross examination, rebuttals, objections, it all ultimately comes down to revealing the truth. And throughout the hours of interviews, the sifting through all of the violence,
Peter Carlisle and Jeanie
Prosecutor Peter Carlisle meets with HMW Publisher Mary Jean Castillo-Barkley at his downtown Honolulu office.
pain, and broken lives, the tears of the victims and their families, the anguish and sorrow and anger and frustration, the guilt and remorse—it’s a sense of
purpose that drives him and his colleagues on.

    Honolulu City Prosecutor Peter Carlisle is serving his third term in office and it’s that principle that carries him through the ups and downs.

    “Being a prosecutor is a morally luxurious job,” said Carlisle. “You get to come to work everyday and know you are doing the right thing and that is pretty uplifting. Some cases are harder than others from an emotional standpoint, but that’s part of the job and you have to accept it. I’m sure the same emotional trauma is experienced by defense attorneys, not to mention members of our armed forces, our police and firefighters as well as doctors and caregivers.”

    While Carlisle is the key figure in the Prosecutor’s Office, the “rank and file” carries much of the burden. Deputy attorneys, specialists, office staff—countless people who make his job much easier. And he is grateful.

    “Most of my staff aren’t making anywhere near the kind of money they could be in the private sector,” said Carlisle. “They do what they do because its good work and they feel it’s worth doing. I recently saw a survey about how people see their jobs. And the biggest factor about how folks view their jobs was the belief that that theirs’ was an important endeavor, something worthwhile. It wasn’t the salary, or even the benefits. I think that feeling is evident in my staff. They all know that they’re serving the community, doing the right thing. The same attitude carries over to me. I love this job.”

    Carlisle and his staff get additional motivation from the general public, in the form of positive feedback and “Mahalos.”

    “A lot of the people say they are really appreciative for what we do and that is both humbling and very rewarding,” said Carlisle. “We get comments like this from victims, witnesses and the community in general. That’s not necessarily true of comments we hear in regards to other lawyers.”

    The positive feedback and sense of mission help lessen the sting of comments from the opposing side of public opinion. With most of his actions under close scrutiny by the media and his detractors, he’s accepted it as part of the job. Carlisle is a “marked man,” and he knows it.

    “There is always somebody out there gunning for you,” said Carlisle. “I get grievances, lawsuits, ethics complaints, and a few newspaper reporters that occasionally want to get nasty or “talk stink.” But by and large, the media treat us pretty fairly. It’s the columnists that tend to be rough. A lot of it comes from the “true believers” in the defense bar, who I like to call the, “Rights Taliban.” They’re always after me for something.”

    Although the office of Prosecuting Attorney is a non-partisan one, politics enviably enter the picture. Carlisle regularly interacts with the State Legislature, the Judiciary, the mass media, and many other people in positions of influence and power. Some of the attacks against Carlisle and his office stem from that mix. But Carlisle could care less about your political affiliation, as long as you are committed to justice and the truth.

    “It doesn’t matter if you are a democrat, a republican, a libertarian, or whatever your beliefs are,” Carlisle said. “What I want to know is, did you do something wrong, and is there sufficient evidence that you did something wrong beyond a reasonable doubt? Was the truth brought out?”

    Much of Carlisle’s time is spent on the lobbying front, talking with lawmakers, community and law enforcement officials, and educating the public about ways to increase public safety and the importance of pending legislation. He played and active role in getting several Constitutional Amendments on the ballot and continues to work for more.

    “I was really happy to see both the “Information Charging” Amendment and “Megan’s Law” put before the people of Hawaii,” Carlisle said. “Both measures passed and I think they will make Hawaii a safer place and help restore some balance to the criminal justice system, making it both fairer and more efficient. With Megan’s Law, we got the Sex Offender Registry back online. In just a few months, there have already been 2.4 million hits on the offender website. That’s twice the population of the state and shows that people are highly concerned about the problem and very interested in this information.”

    Megan’s Law is actually a federal statute signed in 1996 by President Bill Clinton. All 50 States have adopted it in one form or another. The various laws are named for seven-year-old Megan Kanka, who was brutally raped and murdered when lured into her New Jersey neighbor’s home by a twice convicted sex offender. The 1994 case made national headlines and eventually prompted federal action.

    The Hawaii Supreme Court ruled against the law in 2001, saying that sex offenders needed a hearing to explain why their personal data shouldn’t be available to the public. As a result, Hawaii citizens had access to information on only a small percentage of offenders. But Carlisle and others got involved, educating the public on the importance of the online database and citizens were allowed to vote on the issue in the 2004 General Election. Nearly 72 percent of voters favored the amendment. The Hawaii State Legislature signed SB 708 in May of 2005 and the Sex Offender Registry was back online. It can be accessed at http://sexoffenders.hawaii.gov/index.html. Carlisle said the effort was worthwhile.

    “Getting the Megan’s Law Amendment passed required years of hard work and necessitated bypassing the courts and going directly to the voters of Hawaii,” Carlisle said. “That’s the way a democracy is supposed to work. The courts aren’t supposed to make law, I’m not supposed to make law--The Legislature is supposed to make law. In this case, the Legislature gave the people an opportunity to make law by changing the Constitution. It was a good example of how a democracy should function. The issue was brought before the public with fair and full debate from both sides, with lots of information provided to citizens on the pros and cons. The people listened to the arguments, read the statements, and decided overwhelmingly to make progressive change.”

    Like many, Carlisle sees a continued trend toward what some call “judicial activism.” Judges overrule the votes of citizens, usurping the power of the electorate that is essential for a democratic republic.

    Carlisle says his viewpoint on the subject is much like that of Stanford Law School Dean and Professor Larry Kramer. In his 2004 book, The People themselves: Popular Constitutionalism and Judicial Review, Kramer makes several points that stand out for Carlisle. In the book, Kramer wrote that,

    “. . The men who wrote the Constitution would have been aghast at a judicial monopoly on its interpretation. At the time, judges did not claim some exclusive power of constitutional settlement. They believed that judicial review stemmed from their duty to interpret all relevant laws in the course of litigation. But they did not dispute that the White House and Congress had their own duty to interpret the Constitution in the course of their own official actions.”

    “Because the court is selected from a narrow social class, it tends to reflect the views of a modern "aristocracy." Only the willingness of other branches to disagree with the court prevents our constitutional republic from degenerating into a constitutional oligarchy -- with a priestly caste ruling, in effect, by fiat.”

    Carlisle agrees with Kramer’s belief that the people themselves should be the enforcers of the Constitution and not an elite privileged class that rules by judicial decree.

    “This is exactly what happened in the last election,” said Carlisle. “The Legislature, law enforcement, and the citizens of Hawaii challenged the Courts, and the people were ultimately victorious. We need to continue this trend and restore the balance of power to where it should be. Groups and individuals who are hostile towards the idea of Constitutional Amendments that restrict the reach of the judiciary are hostile towards a fundamental principle of a Constitutional Democracy.”

    Carlisle cites the American Civil Liberties Union as one such group. The ACLU actively lobbied against all proposed Amendments and filed suit when the measures successfully passed. His frustration over their tactics was evident.

    “The ACLU uses lawsuits to try and silence the opposition” Carlisle said. “They were once a proud organization that did a lot of good for the country. I commend the work they did in helping the civil rights issue in our nation. But of late, they’ve become more of a special interest lobby for criminal defense lawyers and their clients.”

    While Carlisle strongly supports the public’s right to enforce the constitution, he doesn’t condone “mob rule” or social abuses within a democracy. America is a nation of laws and we must be governed by them.

    “There are instances when intervention by the courts is completely appropriate,” said Carlisle. “If the will of the majority truly violates the Constitution, the Supreme Court has an obligation to intervene, and rightly so.”

    Although he admits the scenario is highly unlikely in this day in age, Carlisle offers a setting where the courts should step in. His analogy mirrors the treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

    “Let’s say you could get a majority of people to agree that every person of a particular race should be constantly monitored, their personal property confiscated, and have them all rounded up to be put into detention camps, ” Carlisle reflected. “There isn’t the slightest doubt that the Court would jump in and say in was unconstitutional. Despite the will of the majority, the Court has every right to step in, and rightly so.”

    Still, Carlisle would like to see a shift from the trend of Constitutional interpretation by the judiciary. With some judges seemingly more reactionary than public opinion, the question, as Kramer put it is, “Do we trust the majority of nine more than the majority of 250 million on questions over which we are inevitably going to be divided?” With many important court decisions decided by narrow margins, Carlisle feels the voice of the electorate should play a greater, if not most important role.

    “We are seeing a lot of major cases being decided by one vote, both at the state and federal level, and these decisions have profound implications for all of us,” Carlisle said. “In the Supreme Court, we see five-four splits, and in Hawaii, it’s often three to two. In many of these cases, a small majority are dictating the law of the land. Sincere as they may be, they are imposing their interpretations on society as a whole. I favor a more democratic approach. Put issues before the people and let them decide. When you do that, citizens become more aware of the issues. There is a large public debate. People get to hear all aspects of a proposal. Then it has to be approved by a certain majority of an elected Legislature, just to be put on the ballot. The beauty of this method is that if the measure doesn’t work the way it was originally planned, the people can vote to scrap it. As it is, we have a trend of judges using judicial review as a means to force their Constitutional interpretation on us. It essentially becomes “judicial legislation.” And then we see the problems that Kramer talked about in his writings.”

    Carlisle also helped back another successfully passed Amendment from the 2004 election when Hawaii voters approved “Information Charging.” The Amendment was originally passed in 2002 but was nullified by the State Supreme Court due to technicalities. Carlisle and others re-submitted an identical measure and voters once again supported it. Under the old system, victims and witnesses in felony cases were required to report to grand jury and preliminary hearings prior to the case actually going to trial. Supporters of the Amendment argued that crime victims and witnesses were subjected to additional trauma and lost time as a result, not to mention the same for law enforcement officers, doctors and other expert witnesses. With information charging, a judge can determine probable cause by reviewing the written statements of witnesses as well as other documentary evidence. Victims are spared additional pain, witnesses don’t have to take time off from work, police officers can stay on patrol, and experts can stay in their particular field or specialty. The defendant still has the right to challenge the judge’s probable cause, as well as ask for a hearing before the judge with the right to call upon witnesses.

    Currently, Carlisle and his office are using information charging on a gradual basis. They find cases that fit the criteria, and utilize the new system. While he admits his office is on a learning curve and “starting slow,” Carlisle thinks most lower-level felony cases will eventually be charged in this manner.

    “It’s early on, but so far, we’ve seen the differences,” said Carlisle. “In the cases we’ve used, we have kept some 90 law enforcement officers out of the courtroom and back on duty, some 16 criminologists back in their offices, and over 80 witnesses have been allowed to go about their life.

    Carlisle has a very direct communication style. In conversation, you sense the restrained, “get-to-the-point attitude” of a very busy man who is trying to hit the nail squarely while being courteous, and move on to the next series of questions. He carefully chooses his words to convey his thoughts--he is precise, to the point. Perhaps his manner is honed from thousands of hours in the courtroom. He looks squarely in the eye and has a gift for re-directing thought to the original focus when the subject matter strays off course. With Carlisle, “a yes means yes, and a no means no.” That explains his frustration and desire to change the way the state tallies votes on matters to ratify the Constitution or convene a Constitutional Convention. Under the current system, blank votes are tallied as NO votes. The Constitutional Amendment for the right of citizens to go online and view the sex offender registry is a case in point. In the 2004 elections, 71.8 percent of voters favored the Amendment, and 19.4 percent voted to reject the measure. But that tally is deceiving because 9.8 percent of the “NO” votes were actually blank. Carlisle feels that in reality, a blank vote means “no decision or opinion”, and shouldn’t be counted as a ‘no,” which means the voter rejects the issue at hand. Almost 10 percent, or 42,298 of the voters left the question blank, yet they were counted as no votes in the final election returns. Carlisle sees the voting system as unfair, and says changing it is a key part in restoring the balance of power and returning more of it to the people, and not the courts.

   Prosecutor's Seal “We need to get rid of this ridiculous rule,” said Carlisle. “As it is, Yes means yes, no means no, and a blank vote means no in regards to a Constitutional Amendment. I know of no other state that has that rule in their Constitution, and when I explain it to colleagues abroad, frankly they’re shocked. The current system isn’t democratic because it doesn’t reflect the view of the electorate. We have no way of knowing how a citizen feels about an issue when they leave it blank, so why do we say that they are against it? In terms of the English Language, “no” has a very different meaning than “blank.”

    While a good part of his time is spent assisting law enforcement and the community in pushing for judicial reforms, the majority of Carlisle’s time is spent as an attorney. And his role is much different than other attorneys. While the defense lawyer defends his client or clients, the Prosecuting Attorney represents the City and County of Honolulu and its people and ordinances, as well as Hawaii State law. In addition, his office assists crime victims and their family in coping with their pain and suffering throughout the judicial process. His relationship and interaction with the defense is adversarial in nature, but he concedes that it is part of a judicial system that is envied around the world.

    “The role of a defense attorney is to represent his client zealously-- that’s his or her job,” Carlisle said. “His client could have committed the act that constituted the elements of the crime, but the defense is still unequivocally under the obligation to represent that person. The use of the word zealous is unfortunate, because in my mind that word means zealot, which I equate with fanaticism. Despite that, I still understand they are doing their job. Every citizen that comes before a court in this nation has the Constitutional right to a fair trial, and we don’t try to prosecute someone we know didn’t commit the crime. In fact, I have had defense attorneys allow me to speak with their clients before trial. Sometimes the defense steps in and offers additional details as to the true nature of a crime and I commend that. To me, it’s ultimately a matter of establishing the truth. Who did what, and proving that they did it.”

    Regardless of the nature or public notoriety of the suspected crime, the defense is obligated to protect the interests of their client. Even if the person is accused of committing a heinous act, the client is still afforded due process under our judicial system. Still, the defense is pretty much charged with defending the rights of the client. The prosecutor has a much different role. Carlisle says that the ethical role of the Prosecutor’s Office is to bring about justice in each case they work. He admits that it’s a difficult task to define. Still, Carlisle says his ultimate responsibility is to bring out the truth.

    “Justice can be defined in about a thousand different ways,” Carlisle said. “But from my experience, and in my opinion, most prosecutors look at the term of justice and see it to mean the truth. I look at our job as people trying to bring out the truth. To me the truth is what really happened, and bringing forth the elements of the crime.”

    Carlisle is in his third term in elected office. He has been exposed to things that would make many of us cringe. Pain. Violence. Broken Lives. Victims and families---Lives forever changed. And he knows of a lot of the bad guys, folks he’d help throw into jail in a heartbeat. He knows they have done evil, but Carlisle’s office is obligated to function under “the rule of law.”

    “Even if we think someone might be guilty, even if we know---unless there is sufficient evidence that we feel will stand up in court, and until we are satisfied that there is sufficient evidence and proof that somebody committed an offense, we don’t want it,” said Carlisle. “Put it this way. There was a murder case here in Honolulu and I know that the person who did the crime is one of two people. I know. But unless we can produce concrete evidence that will stand up in court, the killer is going to continue to walk free. Sure, it nags at me that the guilty person isn’t behind bars. But I am subject to the law, and I respect it, I defend it every day. We don’t want false confessions or tainted ID’s. We don’t want to charge somebody who didn’t commit the crime they are charged with. We dismiss more cases a year than do defense attorneys because that is our job. But my staff and I are pretty much tireless when it comes down to finding the truth. We will continue to work within the confines of the law in order to fulfill our obligation to the people who put us here.”

2006, Hawaii's Most Wanted Magazine