Peter the Prosecutor

Peter Carlisle is exactly what you'd expect from a prosecutor—a quick-on-his-feet, tough-talking lawman who lives to put away bad guys. When he's not on the job, he occasionally dons an evening gown, quotes liberally from "Blade Runner" and can get a little weird about his car.


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Photo: Mark Arbeit

It's lunchtime on a Tuesday, and I’m standing in a downtown parking garage with Peter Carlisle, the prosecuting attorney for the city and county of Honolulu. We’ve just trotted down six flights of stairs from his office in Alii Place to the garage instead of taking the elevator to avoid the “loonies” that sometimes wait for him in the lobby, usually family members of people he’s trying to lock up, he says. “You should wait till I reverse before you get in the car,” says Carlisle, putting on his wraparound Oakley shades. He uses his mock-serious prosecutor voice to let me know he’s joking, even though I’m pretty sure he’s not. “I’d really hate for you to scratch the car while you’re opening the door.”

I’d been warned about the car, a blue 2008 Ford Mustang he’d bought a few months ago. His wife, Judy, told me he wouldn’t park it in Waikiki, where he sometimes surfs before work, because someone might see him and key it. He doesn’t let anyone else drive it, either. Not his two kids, who are both home from college for the summer. Not even Judy.  

We’re headed to The Willows for lunch with Doug Gibb, the former police chief, who managed Carlisle’s first campaign.

“You hear that?” Carlisle asks me as we get onto the freeway, nodding toward the car’s engine, a 210-horsepower, 4.0-liter V6. “It’s the smallest engine you can get, but it sounds right, doesn’t it? Mainly because it’s stick shift.”

Carlisle drives like an old lady. He stays in the middle lane and sticks to the speed limit, even as other cars pass by us. It’s probably for show, I think—one of the top law enforcers in the state proving that he’s also a law abider. But just when I think he can’t drive any slower, he does, rolling almost to a stop as he exits the freeway.

When we near The Willows restaurant on Hausten Street, Carlisle asks me, “Is this valet only?” 

It is. A 20something with spiky black hair steps out of the valet booth as we pull up. He recognizes Carlisle almost immediately and calls out, “Good afternoon, sir!”

“Where should I park it?” Carlisle asks, leaning out the window.

“We’ll take it for you, sir.”

“I can park it myself and pay you for it. Just show me where.”  

“We park the cars, sir.”

“It’s stick shift, though.”

“We can drive stick,” the valet assures him.

“You sure? You sure you’re OK?”

“Yes, sir, we can drive stick.”

“Ohh-kay,” Carlisle turns to me as he unbuckles his seatbelt, twisting his face like a child ready to spit out his green beans.

"The first time I met Peter—before he and Judy got married in 1984—he told me he was going to be prosecutor.  He didn't get elected till '96."—Jim Fulton

Carlisle has been Honolulu’s prosecutor since 1996, and he’s comfortable in the job. Comfortable enough to tell reporters exactly what he thinks, whether it’s about defendants, their attorneys, legislators, even Supreme Court judges. Crime rates on Oahu are at their lowest in more than 30 years, according to FBI statistics, and next month Carlisle will run for his fifth term in office. As of early July, no one was running against him.

Part of Carlisle’s popularity is that he has one of those jobs that comes with respect, like a doctor or firefighter. Carlisle’s the guy who puts away bad guys. Defense attorney Myles Breiner, who worked with Carlisle when then they were both deputy prosecutors in the ’80s, says, “It’s difficult to speak ill of someone defending the rights of victims. Peter probably has one of the highest performance ratings of any politician in the state. Some prosecutors are a bit dour and stay out of the public limelight—that’s certainly not his style. He’s friendly.”

It’s also because Carlisle has personality—a rare combination of capable candidate and pure entertainer. His flair for the spotlight generates some eye-rolling from attorneys across the aisle. So does his selection of cases he personally prosecutes. The cases he handles tend to be high profile—from Xerox shooter Byran Uyesugi to Kirk Lankford, the pest control worker who murdered a visitor from Japan—and, from defense attorneys’ point of view, tend to be slam dunks for the prosecution.


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