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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After talking with his family, Carlisle asks me if I want to see where he keeps his awards. I follow him and Judy upstairs, through their master bedroom and into their bathroom, which has a separate room for the toilet—the room where Carlisle keeps his awards.
Directly above the toilet tank is a poster-size photo of him as deputy prosecutor, surrounded by dozens of employees from his office in 1988. Rows of plaques, framed certificates, Star-Bulletin caricatures, even a HONOLULU Magazine story from 1997 titled, “Why is this man wearing a tutu?” featuring Carlisle competing in a Dennis Rodman look-alike contest.
“He spends a lot of time in here,” Judy jokes.
An old movie blares on the flat screen in the bedroom. Carlisle loves going to the movies—"Forgetting Sarah Marshall was excellent,” he says—although his kids complain he laughs so hard that it’s hard to hear. At home, Carlisle prefers the classics, like Northwest Passage. Right now, he’s watching Pride and the Passion, the widely panned 1957 epic starring Sophia Loren, Cary Grant and Frank Sinatra.
“He watches these movies till 2 in the morning, even though he’s seen them 10 times, like they’re going to end differently,” Judy says. He sometimes falls asleep in bed with one of the cats while the TV’s still on.
“It’s mindless,” Carlisle says. “I like knowing all the lines.”
He pauses, then, “‘I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I’ve watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.’”
I don’t know what to say.
“Blade Runner,” he says.
This is Carlisle at home when he’s not in the middle of a trial. Carlisle prosecutes about one case per year—something a lot of prosecutors in his position don’t do. When he’s working on a case, he doesn’t go to the movies. He doesn’t do events. He’s hardly home at all. He’s in the office by 6 a.m. and works past dinnertime, seven days a week.
"In the grand scheme of criminals, we have so many that are bigger and badder than Kirk Lankford. He was just a nasty little creature."—Peter Carlisle
“He definitely brings it home,” Judy says. “You can’t talk to him about anything. You bring up one little thing, he just jumps on you. It’s like walking on eggshells.”
He gets annoyed when the TV is on, but sometimes he wants it on. He’ll yell if the kids don’t make their beds or pick up their clothes from the floor.
He talks to himself a lot, too, Judy says. He’ll practice his opening statement to himself. A few times, Judy has heard him yelling at the mirror in the bedroom upstairs and asked what was wrong. “Nothing,” he’d reply. He was just pretending it was a judge.
In late May, I head to Carlisle’s office to talk about his most recent court victory, the Lankford murder trial. Almost every day of the trial, the media provided a blow-by-blow account of the case against Lankford, the pest control worker accused of killing Masumi Watanabe, a 21-year-old from Japan who was last seen walking down Pupukea Road. Although her body was never found, Carlisle still managed to convince a jury that Lankford had taken her life.
When I arrive at Carlisle’s office, he’s just getting out of a meeting. He holds his door open as a slight Japanese man and two women exit his office. Their heads are bowed, but they nod to me as they walk by. They’re Masumi Watanabe’s parents, with a translator.
Carlisle ushers me into his office, and I notice two gift boxes on his desk. He unwraps one of them. They’re rice crackers from Japan. During the trial, the Watanabes had brought him several gifts from their home, Sado Island.
A few days before we met, Carlisle had to withdraw his request that Lankford be sentenced to life without parole. Psychological experts didn’t think Lankford was “dangerous” and wouldn’t meet the legal requirements for the sentence. Masumi Watanabe’s parents didn’t understand what that meant, and Carlisle had to explain to them that there was a possibility that the man who killed their daughter could one day be free.
“It’s very difficult for them, because there are huge cultural, institutional and language barriers,” he says. “You say something and think they understand, and a few minutes later, they ask a question that shows they didn’t. Her parents didn’t understand that he can appeal his verdict. They want to know if he’ll ever admit his guilt, if he’ll ever say where he really left the body.”
I ask Carlisle what it’s like to take on a killer in court. Does it weigh on him?
You get used to it, Carlisle says. Prosecutors learn how to deal with graphic crime reports, bloody weapons, photos of dead bodies and creepy defendants. They have to separate those parts of their job from their personal lives to be good at what they do.
Byran Uyesugi was an exception. By far, Uyesugi was the most cold-blooded killer Carlisle had ever prosecuted. Cruel, calculating, unremorseful. The shooting happened at the Xerox Building on Nimitz Highway on a Tuesday morning. That afternoon, before the seven bodies had been removed, Carlisle was at the crime scene, retracing Uyesugi’s steps through the two-story building.