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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The kids are home from college for the summer, so the house is brighter and louder than usual. Aspen, 21, just graduated with her economics degree and starts law school in Kentucky this fall. Son Benson is a junior in Michigan.  

During a dinner of Boston’s pizza—spinach, garlic and tomato for the women, and pepperoni for Carlisle, who says he doesn’t believe pizza should resemble health food—the family jokes a lot, often at his expense.

The whole city-prosecutor thing doesn’t fly at home, says Judy. “He gets enough of that everywhere else. We bring him down to earth.”  

"He's very hardnosed in negotiating cases.  His whole platform is lock 'em up or hang 'em."—Bill Harrison


Carlisle doesn’t mind. They joke about his absentmindedness, when he asks me where I went to college, a few minutes after I told them I’d studied journalism at UH Manoa. Benson repeats what I’d said almost verbatim, making Judy and Aspen laugh over their pizza. They tease him about his tendency to stop talking mid-sentence, like his brain is too full of ideas to maintain a single train of thought.

After Carlisle finishes a second slice of pizza, he pours himself a glass of wine and goes upstairs, so I can get to know his family.

I had preconceptions of what a prosecutor dad would be like, I tell them. Strict. Unbending. Militant almost.

Oh, yeah, both Benson and Aspen nod their heads. Turns out I wasn’t far off.

“He told us that if we ever messed up, he’d make sure we’d get the harshest punishment,” Benson says. I’m about to laugh, until he adds, “He wouldn’t want to show any favoritism because we’re his kids. He said he’d actually push for even more than what we should get.”

Not that he would ever have to, according to Aspen. “We weren’t troublemakers, we didn’t sneak out, we didn’t do any drugs—he had it so easy.”

Carlisle forbade them to go to any clubs where he knew fights had broken out or drug deals went down. Even now, he still wants Benson home by 12:30 every night—house rules while he’s home for the summer. 

And forget about trying to sleep in, Benson says.

“He just believes everybody should be productive,” Aspen says, “that everyone should have a schedule. He’s always doing something.”

“His idea of vacation is working on the house,” Benson says. 

They got used to their dad being gone before they even wake up. Carlisle likes to get out of bed at 4:15 a.m. to surf before work and leaves the office around 6 p.m. At home, he does his own gardening. He still maintains the two royal palms in their front yard—just broomsticks when he first planted them—even though they’re now as tall as the house.

I ask Judy what it’s like to be the prosecutor’s wife. She’s worked full time for most of their marriage, taking seven years off when her husband was first elected and Benson and Aspen were still in elementary school. Now she’s working for a shipping company.

“It does get lonely,” Judy says, especially when the kids go back to school. Judy’s not the kind of politician’s wife who hangs on her husband’s arm at every function he attends. She’s shy. They made a pact early in his career that she’d only go to events she wanted to attend. “They’re there to see him and not me, and I just kind of sit there. Sometimes I’d rather just be home with the cats.”

It’s hard to blame her. Carlisle’s not one to turn down public appearances, especially if they’re for a good cause. This summer, he judged the Miss Oahu Filipina pageant and competed in a salsa-making contest against Duane “Dog” Chapman and his wife, Beth (Judy did end up going to that one). He’s even donated seven gallons of blood to the Blood Bank of Hawaii—he still needs to take his picture for its Wall of Fame.


Uh... Gov. Lingle? Dan Cooke? No, it's your city and county prosecutor, Peter Carlisle, donning an evening gown for a good cause. 

Photo: Peter Carlisle

Carlisle’s not ashamed of his love of the spotlight. When I first interviewed him for this profile, he showed me a Web video of his appearance on KGMB as a guest celebrity weathercaster. Both segments. He’s dressed up in drag on more than one occasion, most recently impersonating Gov. Linda Lingle in an evening gown (hairy back and all) at a Hawaii Women’s Legal Foundation event.

“We can’t go anywhere with him without him being recognized,” Aspen says. “I went to work with him today, and it took three times as long to walk through downtown, because he kept getting stopped by people. People usually want to thank him. And he talks to everyone.”  

“It must get tiring for him after 12 years,” I say. 

“You’d think it would,” she says, with a raise of her eyebrows.

Being the family of the city’s most high-profile prosecutor can get scary. A handful of times, Carlisle has brought home photos of men who have made threats against him or his office, so Judy and the kids could watch out for them. When Benson was younger, an ex-con called the house and started swearing at him over the phone. That was before they had their home number unlisted.

“I don’t even bother mentioning my last name to people,” Benson says. “You can’t really go to many places, because you don’t know who’s been involved in any of his cases.” 

Judy nods. “Even when I’m buying something at the supermarket, people ask, ‘Are you related to …?’ You just never know what kind of reaction you’re going to get.”

 

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