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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.


(page 6 of 6)

He’d never done that before. Judy had worked at Xerox until two years earlier and considered some of the victims her friends. All seven of them were fathers. Carlisle came home that night and for the first time in a long while, he couldn’t shut out the images. He couldn’t sleep. He could hear Benson playing with the cat, and he couldn’t stop thinking how unfair it was that these seven men couldn’t do the same. 

The Kirk Lankford trial hit the road, when Carlisle took jurors out to Pupukea Road, where Lankford first encountered Masumi Watanabe.

Photo: courtesy of Peter Carlisle

Lankford wasn’t the same kind of killer, Carlisle says. “Our little Kirkie Poo? He was just annoying. People really didn’t like him.”

The daily news accounts of Lankford’s trial read like episodes of Law & Order, with outrageous twists and Hollywood-worthy characters. Masumi Watanabe was a young woman who didn’t speak English, was nearly blind without her glasses and was so shy that she swam at the beach fully clothed. Lankford, with his slicked-back red hair, was a father and devout churchgoer.

There were damning witness reports—a man who saw Watanabe trying to wave off Lankford on Pupukea Road, a woman who saw her climb into an exterminator’s truck and a homeless man who confronted Lankford at Kahana Beach at midnight when he spotted Lankford digging a hole on shore. The man carved Lankford’s license plate number into the white stripe running along Kamehameha Highway one, two, three times to make sure the rain didn’t wash it away.

 The prosecution didn’t have a body to prove that Watanabe was even dead, but they had her blood. It was on Lankford’s passenger-side floor mat, the passenger door panel, the passenger seat and the driver’s door panel.

They had her glasses, taken from the seat of his truck. The prescription was so unusual that, for every 1 million people in the world wearing prescription glasses, only 2.5 individuals would have the same prescription.

And they had videotapes. Footage of Lankford shopping at Foodland and Home Depot that day, buying plastic garbage bags, paper towels, Clorox, work gloves, a flashlight, a shovel and duct tape—a burial kit, Carlisle says.

On the stand, Lankford gave a bizarre explanation for all of this. He said he accidentally sideswiped Watanabe with his company truck as she walked along Pupukea Road that morning. He said that he offered to drive her home, but after she got in, she panicked, opened the car door and dived out. He said she was killed when she hit her head on a rock. He said he was scared he would lose his job, so he stashed her body in his truck and went back to work. Past midnight that night, he carried her body as far out as he could into the ocean and left her there.

The jury didn’t buy it.

Carlisle believed Lankford killed Watanabe in his truck. To help prove it to the jury, he showed them Lankford—his attitude, his own cold description of how he got rid of the body.

In his closing argument, Carlisle repeated what Lankford had said during his cross-examination, when he had asked Lankford more than 1,100 questions over a day and a half. Lankford testified that he’d left Watanabe’s body in the bed of his work truck for 12 hours and that her body had started to smell almost immediately. He testified that her body—5 feet tall, 100 pounds—wouldn’t fit lengthwise into the garbage bags he’d bought, so he taped her knees to her chest, sealed the bag with duct tape and carried it out to sea.

“In the grand scheme of criminals, we have so many that are bigger and badder than Kirk Lankford,” Carlisle says. “He was just a nasty little creature, because of his arrogance and narcissism.” 

Although Carlisle was convinced of Lankford’s guilt, he couldn’t predict what the jury would decide. He never does. The toughest part of the trial for any attorney is waiting for the verdict, he says. He passes the time with mindless work, like checking e-mails or shuffling papers, but all he can think about is the jury. He doesn’t read into anything jurors do—how long they’ve been out, whether they make eye contact with him when they return. You just never know.

In the Lankford case, the jury took less than a day and a half to make their decision. The number of people in the courtroom had swelled over the course of the trial and, by its end, there was standing room only.

Carlisle remembers waiting quietly as the jury foreman announced the verdict. His stomach was in knots, he held his breath. “Guilty.” 


He exhaled. 

There was no victory cry, no fist pumping. Masumi Watanabe was still dead. Her parents were still looking for their daughter’s body. They weren’t in court to hear the verdict that day. They were on a plane back to Japan, but once they arrived, they heard the good news many times over—from friends, family and Carlisle’s translator.

“The very first time I met the Watanabes, they were very confused, they were still hoping their daughter was alive, although we knew she wasn’t and had already indicted Lankford,” Carlisle says. “I started explaining the process to them. At the very end of it, her father said something to my translator, and she told me, ‘He said, My life is in your hands.’”

That’s what it’s like to be the prosecutor.


UPDATE, added April 22, 2009: On April 17, 2009, the Hawaii Paroling Authority Board approved a sentence of 150 years in prison for Kirk Lankford. For more, see this report at kitv.com.

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