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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“What were you thinking about in 1998?” Fulton asks me. He slides a yellowed Honolulu Star-Bulletin newspaper clipping across his desk. The headline reads, “In the Line of Fire,” over a collage of images—a row of saluting police officers; a pair of hands gripping two kitchen knives; a photo of Carlisle, his face smoother, his hair darker and wavier; and a young Samoan man.
“Shoot me, shoot me,” Rodney Laulusa shouted at four police officers in a semicircle with their guns aimed at him as he wielded two large knives at the Palolo Valley Housing complex.
One witness heard an officer trying to get Laulusa to drop the knives, saying: “Put down the knives and then we’ll shoot you.”
Instead, Laulusa, 30, moved toward the officers . . . BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG!
Laulusa was one of four men shot by Honolulu police officers in 1998. Three of them were killed. It was one of the first controversies of Carlisle’s career as Honolulu prosecutor.
“After Peter did this investigation and made his decision, he called a community meeting out in Palolo,” Fulton says. “It was just the two of us—no investigators, no police. It was night, it was dark. I was frightened. There was a lot of anger there. But we went there, and he listened to what people had to say. He tried to explain what was going on. They didn’t all agree, but I’d never seen anything like it before in my life.”
Even his natural enemies, defense attorneys, seem to respect Carlisle’s frankness, though they almost always disagree with him. Their biggest gripes are about his rigid policies and his stubborn insistence on sticking to them, rarely willing to compromise.
“He’s very hardnosed in negotiating cases,” says defense attorney Bill Harrison, “Sometimes he’s very fair; other times, I think he’s difficult to deal with. He can be intransigent in negotiating pleas. His whole platform is lock ’em up or hang ’em.”
During his 12 years in office, Carlisle has pushed the state Legislature to toughen Hawaii’s sentencing laws. But “the biggest thing he’s done,” he says (and most criminal attorneys in the state would agree), was to convince legislators and registered voters to amend the state Constitution in 2002 to allow a process known as information charging. It fundamentally changed the way criminals could be brought to trial in Hawaii. Rather than requiring that victims and other witnesses appear in court during preliminary or grand jury hearings, judges can now simply review evidence, including statements from witnesses, to determine whether there should be a trial.
Carlisle says it saves police officers from having to spend countless hours in court and victims the unnecessary stress of having to retell their stories. Defense attorneys say it violates their clients’ constitutional rights.
“All you need right now is a police officer and a prosecutor deciding they got the right person and a criminal trial can result in most cases—they just file a complaint in court and the person’s arrested,” says public defender Jack Tonaki. “This was all instituted in the name of saving resources—at what cost do you save resources when you’re sacrificing people’s individual rights?”
Carlisle shrugs off criticism from the other side. He’s been hearing it since he became a prosecutor 25 years ago, and he doesn’t expect that to change, he says.
“It’s always suggested that we should give more plea bargains, that we’re too hardnosed, that we put too many people in jail, that we put them in jail for so long, that we have no heart—I’m happy with all of that,” he says. “I consider this job morally luxurious. It means I can wake up every day and know I’m doing the right thing.”
Carlisle invites me to his house in Hawaii Kai to have dinner with his family. Just bring a couple of pizzas over, he says. Fancy restaurants aren’t his thing. He’s out a lot for work, so when he has down time, he’d rather hang out at home.
I pull up to his house on Mariner’s Ridge, a spacious two-story on a corner lot. Inside, I notice a stained-glass art piece. Someone left it on his front doorstep at Christmas with the note, “Thank you for all of the work you do.” No name.