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.
It’s lunchtime on a Tuesday, and I’m standing in a downtown parking garage with Peter Carlisle, the prosecuting attorney for the city and county of Honolulu. We’ve just trotted down six flights of stairs from his office in Alii Place to the garage instead of taking the elevator to avoid the “loonies” that sometimes wait for him in the lobby, usually family members of people he’s trying to lock up, he says. “You should wait till I reverse before you get in the car,” says Carlisle, putting on his wraparound Oakley shades. He uses his mock-serious prosecutor voice to let me know he’s joking, even though I’m pretty sure he’s not. “I’d really hate for you to scratch the car while you’re opening the door.”
I’d been warned about the car, a blue 2008 Ford Mustang he’d bought a few months ago. His wife, Judy, told me he wouldn’t park it in Waikiki, where he sometimes surfs before work, because someone might see him and key it. He doesn’t let anyone else drive it, either. Not his two kids, who are both home from college for the summer. Not even Judy.
We’re headed to The Willows for lunch with Doug Gibb, the former police chief, who managed Carlisle’s first campaign.
“You hear that?” Carlisle asks me as we get onto the freeway, nodding toward the car’s engine, a 210-horsepower, 4.0-liter V6. “It’s the smallest engine you can get, but it sounds right, doesn’t it? Mainly because it’s stick shift.”
Carlisle drives like an old lady. He stays in the middle lane and sticks to the speed limit, even as other cars pass by us. It’s probably for show, I think—one of the top law enforcers in the state proving that he’s also a law abider. But just when I think he can’t drive any slower, he does, rolling almost to a stop as he exits the freeway.
When we near The Willows restaurant on Hausten Street, Carlisle asks me, “Is this valet only?”
It is. A 20something with spiky black hair steps out of the valet booth as we pull up. He recognizes Carlisle almost immediately and calls out, “Good afternoon, sir!”
“Where should I park it?” Carlisle asks, leaning out the window.
“We’ll take it for you, sir.”
“I can park it myself and pay you for it. Just show me where.”
“We park the cars, sir.”
“It’s stick shift, though.”
“We can drive stick,” the valet assures him.
“You sure? You sure you’re OK?”
“Yes, sir, we can drive stick.”
“Ohh-kay,” Carlisle turns to me as he unbuckles his seatbelt, twisting his face like a child ready to spit out his green beans.
"The first time I met Peter—before he and Judy got married in 1984—he told me he was going to be prosecutor. He didn’t get elected till ’96."—Jim Fulton
Carlisle has been Honolulu’s prosecutor since 1996, and he’s comfortable in the job. Comfortable enough to tell reporters exactly what he thinks, whether it’s about defendants, their attorneys, legislators, even Supreme Court judges. Crime rates on Oahu are at their lowest in more than 30 years, according to FBI statistics, and next month Carlisle will run for his fifth term in office. As of early July, no one was running against him.
Part of Carlisle’s popularity is that he has one of those jobs that comes with respect, like a doctor or firefighter. Carlisle’s the guy who puts away bad guys. Defense attorney Myles Breiner, who worked with Carlisle when then they were both deputy prosecutors in the ’80s, says, “It’s difficult to speak ill of someone defending the rights of victims. Peter probably has one of the highest performance ratings of any politician in the state. Some prosecutors are a bit dour and stay out of the public limelight—that’s certainly not his style. He’s friendly.”
It’s also because Carlisle has personality—a rare combination of capable candidate and pure entertainer. His flair for the spotlight generates some eye-rolling from attorneys across the aisle. So does his selection of cases he personally prosecutes. The cases he handles tend to be high profile—from Xerox shooter Byran Uyesugi to Kirk Lankford, the pest control worker who murdered a visitor from Japan—and, from defense attorneys’ point of view, tend to be slam dunks for the prosecution.
“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.
“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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.