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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

“Peter picks cases he feels he’s going to win because the evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of the state,” says defense attorney Bill Harrison. “He’s an elected political official, so I’m sure he’d hate to have a loss on his record.”

Breiner adds, “It’s particularly difficult opposing the chief prosecutor in court, because there’s a high probability that people who are going to sit in judgment personally have voted for him.”

As an administrator, Carlisle essentially heads one of the largest law firms in the state, second only in size to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. He oversees 259 employees, 106 of them prosecutors, who handle more than 80,000 criminal cases every year, not including numerous traffic cases. There are seven division chiefs—four women and three men—who oversee cases like misdemeanors, domestic violence and jury trials. In big cases like the one against Lankford, every division will contribute its expertise.

“Peter is not a micromanager,” says Jean Ireton, chief of the career criminal unit. “He gives you the room to prove yourself. He doesn’t pull any punches. It’s pretty much what you see is what you get, and I personally appreciate that. There’s no time to play games in this office.”

I meet with Carlisle again on a Thursday afternoon at his office. Front and center on his desk, there’s a wooden train carved with the words, “Little Engine That Could.” A reference to his first campaign for the prosecutor’s office in ’96. Carlisle was a long shot. He was one of several deputy prosecutors who had left the office a decade earlier, when their boss, Charles Marsland, was beaten by Keith Kaneshiro. Carlisle had spent those intervening 10 years in private practice, handling personal injury cases, so he had little name recognition. He was also competing against David Arakawa, whose family owned the beloved namesake general store in Waipahu and who had the support of Kaneshiro as well as most of Hawaii’s Democratic Party.

Carlisle’s personality won him the race. He stood out against Arakawa, an articulate challenger, in televised debates.

“I won because I looked a lot nastier,” Carlisle says. “Crime was at its worst level in just about ever, and Arakawa had a great smile—he’s an attractive guy—and I just looked like a goon.”

It helped, too, that there was a widely circulated report that Carlisle had once used his golf clubs to scare off a man attacking a woman in a parking lot. It’s true. That was the most use he’s ever gotten out of his clubs, Carlisle says. He eventually quit the sport, because he wasn’t good at it.

He’s almost always wanted to be a prosecutor. Born in 1952 in the affluent New Jersey suburb of Ridgewood, he was the second of three kids born to politically opposite parents—his father was a newspaper editorial writer and his mother, a housewife. “He voted for Kennedy, she voted for Nixon,” he says. 

After he earned his bachelor’s in English and psychology, Carlisle attended UCLA Law, where classmates called him “Peter the Prosecutor.” He moved to Hawaii in 1978 and spent seven years working under prosecutor Marsland, who had devoted his career to battling organized crime in Hawaii after his son was murdered by a hitman. “I was Marsland’s first bag boy,” Carlisle says, carrying his boss’s files to the courthouse in a case against reputed crime boss Nappy Pulawa.

I talk with Jim Fulton, who’s been Carlisle’s executive assistant for the past 12 years. He’s been his friend twice as long. “The first time I met Peter—before he and Judy got married in 1984—he told me he was going to be prosecutor for the city and county of Honolulu. He didn’t get elected till ’96.”

Fulton’s a former salesman for KGMB; now he’s a salesman for Carlisle. His job is to deal exclusively with the media. Court reporters in town know, if they want to talk to Carlisle, ask Fulton. The two men talk several times a day, discussing, sometimes arguing about, what to tell the public about their cases. They’re together so often that one prosecutor told me, “It’s hard to tell whose shadow is whose.” 

In contrast to Carlisle’s almost obsessively tidy office, Fulton’s space is full of manila folders of pending cases, newspaper clippings and videotapes. Dozens more tapes are stacked on the floor.


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Honolulu Magazine April 2018
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