Skip to main content

The Tragic Killing of Kollin Elderts by Christopher Deedy Echoes Trayvon Martin Case

While the country was transfixed last month by the Florida trial and verdict in the George Zimmerman case, another high-profile murder trial was getting under way 5,000 miles to the west, in Honolulu. The two cases have more in common than sunny locales. Like Zimmerman’s trial for the shooting of young Trayvon Martin, the Hawaii trial of Christopher Deedy for the shooting of Kollin Elderts raises questions about race, guns and self-defense in America.

Christopher Deedy: On trial for the murder of Kollin Elderts

Exclusive to The Daily Banter - by David Harada Stone:

While the country was transfixed last month by the Florida trial and verdict in the George Zimmerman case, another high-profile murder trial was getting underway 5,000 miles to the west, in Honolulu. The two cases have more in common than sunny locales. Like Zimmerman’s trial for the shooting of young Trayvon Martin, the Hawaii trial of Christopher Deedy for the shooting of Kollin Elderts raises questions about race, guns and self defense.

The victims in both cases were young, unarmed men of color. The shooters in both cases claim they acted in self-defense, or in the defense of others. But there is one big difference: While Zimmerman is a cop wannabe and self-appointed neighborhood watch captain, the defendant now on trial in Hawaii is a federal law enforcement officer.

Deedy, now 29 and 27 at the time of the shooting, is an agent for the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, the law enforcement and security arm of the U.S. State Department. In November 2011, Deedy, a resident of Arlington, Va., was assigned to help provide security at the Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference in Honolulu, an event attended by President Obama and heads of state from throughout the Asia-Pacific region. As you would expect, security for the conference was extremely tight, with checkpoints set up in Waikiki to monitor the flow of cars and pedestrians past the luxury hotels playing host to presidents and premiers.


Kollin Elderts: Hawaii's Trayvon Martin?

But Elderts’ shooting had nothing to do with the security of foreign dignitaries. Deedy, who is white, was with friends at a Waikiki McDonalds early on the morning of Nov. 5 after a night of bar hopping. The agent, dressed in shorts, slippers and a dress-shirt with rolled up sleeves, and packing a 9 mm Glock, had words with the Elderts, who was a brown-skinned part-Hawaiian local. The exchange escalated into a physical fight, with Deedy kicking Elderts, Elderts punching Deedy and the two wrestling on the floor. Deedy ultimately pulled out his gun and fired three shots, one of which struck Elderts in the chest, killing him.

Unlike authorities in Sanford, Florida, who waited weeks before charging Zimmerman and then did so only after critics suggested police and prosecutors were ignoring the case because Trayvon Martin was an African-American, Honolulu police arrested Deedy on the morning of the shooting. Prosecutors quickly charged him with second degree murder. He was freed on $250,000 bail and allowed to return to Arlington until his trial, which began in early July. If convicted, Deedy faces a sentence of life in prison with the possibility of parole.

Deedy’s attorneys unsuccessfully sought dismissal of the charges on the ground that he was acting within the course and scope of his duties as a federal agent at the time of the shooting, but the State Department itself has been quiet about the case. Of course, the Department has had enough problems lately without worrying about Deedy, coming under fire for security lapses at the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi – site of a terror attack in September 2012 that killed four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens – and a report by the State Department’s Inspector General detailing allegations of misconduct in Deedy’s agency, the Bureau of Diplomatic Security (formerly the Diplomatic Security Service), including sexual assault, prostitution and drug use.

A federal judge denied Deedy’s request to remove the case to federal court, which might have permitted a change of venue to a federal district court outside Hawaii. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld the decision.

The prosecution’s theory of the case is that Deedy was the aggressor and that inexperience and alcohol led the off-duty agent to pick a fight with Elderts and then shoot him. The defense alleges that Elderts was the aggressor and that Deedy was acting as a law enforcement officer in defense of himself and others when he shot Elderts.

Unlike Florida, Hawaii is not a “stand your ground” state. A resident has no duty to retreat on the resident’s own property and can use deadly force against an intruder committing a violent felony or wielding a weapon inside the resident’s home. But out in public, a person must make every reasonable attempt to extricate himself from a confrontation before resorting to deadly force. That’s the theory anyway. However, once a homicide defendant has produced evidence to raise self defense as an issue, Hawaii law, like the law in Florida and most other U.S. states, places the burden on the prosecution to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant did not act in self defense.

While Zimmerman is the only person alive who knows exactly what led to the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin, the events culminating in Elderts’ shooting were witnessed by several people, including friends of Elderts and Deedy, other customers at the McDonalds that morning, and restaurant employees. There is also a videotape recorded by the restaurant’s security cameras, although it is not conclusive. You can watch the tape below - the relevant section is at 24:00 - 28:00. At 24:00 the three men at the counter, from left to right, are Medeiros, Elderts and Perrine. After Elderts, in the plaid shirt, goes to sit down, Deedy, in the shorts and collared shirt, walks to the tanle to talk to him. Things take off from there:

The issue of race came up early in the trial. Ben Finkelstein, a State Department security agent who traveled to Honolulu with Deedy, testified that he has relatives in Hawaii and had told Deedy about tensions between “locals” and “haoles,” or whites, cautioning him to stay away from certain places at night. Finkelstein said Deedy responded that he intended to carry his gun with him while in Hawaii.

According to witnesses, Elderts caught Deedy’s attention because he was verbally harassing another white customer at the Waikiki McDonalds on the morning of the shooting. The customer, Michael Perrine, testified that he had been drinking before coming to the restaurant and did not remember much about the exchange with Elderts while the two were standing at the McDonalds counter.  “The only word that sticks out is 'haole,”' he said.

“Haole” is a Hawaiian word often used by locals – including many Hawaii-born whites themselves – to refer to Caucasians of European descent (with the exception of local-born persons of Portuguese descent, a distinction rooted in plantation era class differences). Sometimes it is used merely in a benign descriptive sense, the everyday local equivalent of “white.”  At other times, the word can be a slur conveying scorn, resentment or hostility. Distinguishing a speaker’s meaning can be difficult for newcomers and tourists. The difference can be subtle, sometimes just a matter of intonation. Other times it is easier, such as when a local refers to a white person as a “fucking haole.” (The etymology of the word “haole” is disputed, with some Hawaiian scholars claiming its original meaning was “without breath,” and referred to the greeting or prayer practices of early European immigrants, while some linguists claim the word simply means foreigner or outsider).

Perrine said he “shrugged off” Elderts’ comments, didn’t feel threatened or in need of help, and just walked away.  Perrine testified that he saw Deedy go over to Elderts’ table and start talking to him. He also saw them latter grappling and Deedy falling to the floor. Perrine said he caught a glimpse of Deedy’s gun holstered under his shirt. “It was scary,” he said.

Alexander Byrd, another customer in the McDonalds that morning and a former U.S. Marine, said he tried to defuse the argument between Deedy, Elderts and Elderts’ friend Shane Medeiros, but that Deedy’s friend, Adam Gutowski, lunged at Elderts. According to Byrd, Elderts pushed Gutowski aside. Gutowski and Medeiros later fought. Byrd said he heard Deedy twice mumble to Elderts, “I’m going to shoot you in the face.” Byrd said Elderts then punched Deedy in the face, knocking him down. The agent got up, threatened Elderts again, and pulled out his gun, Byrd testified.

According to Byrd, Deedy fired one shot before Deedy and Elderts scuffled on the floor. Byrd said he saw the gun in Deedy’s hand and observed Elderts on top straddling the agent and trying to pin back his hands. Byrd said he ran outside the restaurant at this point. Fellow Marine Assan Jobe, who was with Byrd at the restaurant, testified that he saw Deedy kick Elderts, after which the two got into a fist fight. He said he saw Deedy get up from the floor and draw his gun. Like Byrd, Jobe said he left he restaurant after the first shot, but added that he heard a second shot while he was exiting.

The coroner retrieved one bullet from Elderts’ body, and police found two bullets in the walls of the restaurant. The prosecution contends that Deedy killed Elderts with his second shot, before they ended up scuffling on the floor, while the defense contends that the third shot was the fatal one and that Deedy shot Elderts in self defense while they were grappling on the floor, with Elderts trying to take away Deedy’s gun.

Gutowski, a Hawaii resident and Deedy’s onetime college roommate on the mainland, testified that after Deedy’s kick he tried to stop Elderts from approaching the agent, but Elderts punched him in the head. Gutowski said he was “severely beaten” by Elderts and Medeiros.

Medeiros testified that he never heard Deedy identify himself as a federal agent or show Elderts a badge or identification. Medeiros claimed that Elderts had only been joking with Perrine, the customer he allegedly harassed, and that he had explained as much to Deedy.

Gutowski testified that Deedy ordered five beers at bars in Honolulu’s Chinatown and in Waikiki before they ended up at the McDonalds. Like Medeiros, Gutowski did not recall Deedy identifying himself to Elderts as a law enforcement officer.  However, Gutowski’s girlfriend at the time, Jessica West, testified that she saw Deedy pull out his wallet, flip it open, and show it to Elderts. She said Elderts reacted angrily to the gesture.

West also disputed the testimony of other witnesses who said Deedy appeared to be drunk. She said he did not seem to be under the influence when they went to the McDonalds.

Deedy refused to take a breathalyzer test when he was processed at the police station. One of the primary detectives in the case testified that he did not find out about the refusal until he returned to the station about nine hours after the shooting. He said it would have taken another three to five hours to get a search warrant to compel a blood test, by which time the test results would have been unreliable. An autopsy revealed that Elderts had marijuana, alcohol and trace amounts of cocaine in his system at the time of the shooting.

The Deedy trial, which resumes this week, has not had the polarizing effect in Hawaii that the Zimmerman trial and verdict have had across much of the mainland. A small group of protesters marched past the site of the APEC conference a few days after the shooting to demand justice for Elderts, but Deedy’s quick arrest and the subsequent murder charge mostly defused the public reaction to the shooting.

Hawaii is probably the most racially and ethnically diverse state in the nation. According to the  Census Bureau, Hawaii’s population of 1.39 million (the 40th largest out of 50 states) in 2012 was 38.3 percent Asian, 26.1 percent white (22.8 percent non-Hispanic white), 23 percent mixed race, 10.1 percent native Hawaiian and other Pacific islanders, 9.5 percent Hispanic and 2.1 percent black. Interracial families are extremely common in Hawaii, maybe even the norm. Many part-Hawaiians are also of European and/or Asian ancestry.

The racial and ethnic backgrounds of the 12 jurors and two alternates hearing the Deedy trial have not been publicly disclosed. One media report described eight of them as “local” (which could mean Hawaiian, part-Hawaiian or other mixed race) or Asian, while six appear to “pull Caucasian.” The jury is made up of nine men and five women.

Some commentators have questioned whether Deedy can receive a fair trial in Hawaii, a query fraught with irony for students of Hawaii history. One of the darkest episodes in Hawaii's post-annexation history began in 1931, after a jury deadlocked in the trial of five young local men charged in the rape of Thalia Massie, the daughter of a wealthy and politically-connected Washington, D.C. couple. Before prosecutors could decide whether to retry the suspects -- the evidence was sketchy and the alleged victim's story full  of inconsistencies -- Massie's family, including her mother, and supporters, including several sailors stationed on Oahu, took the law into their own hands. They kidnapped and beat one of the defendants and murdered another. Honolulu police captured the vigilantes with the naked corpse of the dead man, Joseph Kahahawai, wrapped in a sheet in the back seat of their car. These events garnered a massive amount of national publicity for the time, with mainland politicians and media overwhelmingly siding with Kahahawai's murderers. Liberal icon Clarence Darrow (of Scopes "monkey trial" fame) signed on to defend Kahahawai's killers, who,were nonetheless convicted of manslaughter. Although the conviction carried a mandatory 10-year prison sentence, the white territorial governor commuted the sentence to one hour, which the killers spent in the governor's office.  The Massie case, as it is known, has come to symbolize the oppression of Hawaiians and other groups by a racist white regime in the islands during the period between annexation and statehood.

Besides comprising a majority of Hawaii’s transient population of active duty military members and dependents, whites have historically been overrepresented in Hawaii’s corporate board rooms, law firms, academia, the media and such prestigious private schools as Punahou, Barack Obama’s alma mater. Hawaiians (a term reserved in Hawaii for people of Hawaiian blood, i.e., the descendants of the indigenous population living in the Islands before European contact, or kānaka maoli) and other Pacific islanders (mostly Samoans and Tongans), have long suffered from higher rates of poverty, incarceration and dependence on public assistance than other groups in Hawaii. However, there are many prominent Hawaiians in business, politics and law. Admission to the Kamehameha Schools, which has the largest endowment of any private secondary school in the United States, is limited almost exclusively to children of native Hawaiian ancestry.

While socioeconomic and cultural differences can sometimes be a source of tension between whites and other racial and ethnic groups in Hawaii (some people insist that “kill haole day,” a day supposedly set aside at the end of the school year for local kids to harass white kids, is, or at least was, real, others maintain it is an urban myth; having attended public schools in Hawaii from kindergarten through high school myself, I can only say that I never experienced it), Hawaiians and whites also have history to divide them. Haole businessmen, some the descendants of early Christian missionaries, orchestrated a coup in 1893, overthrowing Hawaii’s queen with the tacit support of the American Minister to Hawaii and a detachment of U.S. Marines. The Marines never fired a shot, but their deployment dissuaded Queen Liliuokalani from mounting any resistance. The coup disenfranchised most Hawaiians and set the stage for U.S. annexation five years later. This injustice is familiar to Hawaii school children and is commemorated not only in history books but in local literature and song.

Still, it’s unlikely that many bar fights or other altercations between Hawaiians and white servicemen or tourists are fueled primarily by a sense of historical grievance so much as by cultural conflicts and testosterone.  Serious incidents of racially motivated violence in Hawaii do happen, but they are relatively rare. Nor are whites the only victims.

It is possible to grow up white in Hawaii without ever experiencing racially motivated violence. I did. I can’t speak for all local haoles, but in my experience avoiding interracial or interethnic conflict is mostly about displaying respect, cultural sensitivity and common sense. Of course, assholes come in all colors, and some are immune to reason. More often then not, though, they can be avoided.

Beyond race, the Deedy case raises questions about guns and how they can turn a contentious situation into a deadly one. If Zimmerman has not been packing, it is likely that both he and Trayvon Martin would have walked away from their encounter unharmed, or maybe with a few scrapes and bruises (Zimmerman's insistence that a sidewalk constituted a "deadly weapon" notwithstanding). Whatever the jury’s verdict, it seems likely that had Deedy not been armed on the morning of Elderts' shooting, events would have evolved differently. At worst, maybe police would have broken up another drunken brawl (not an uncommon occurrence in the early morning hours in Waikiki). Or maybe the parties would have exchanged a few harsh words and things would have ended with no one having suffered anything worse than a bruised ego.

Hawaii has some of the strictest gun laws in the country. A permit is required to acquire both long guns and handguns. All firearms must be registered, and concealed carry permits are generally only issued to law enforcement officers and retirees and some private security personnel.  Open carry is not permitted (except for hunters with permits). Carrying a loaded firearm outside one’s home, place of business, hunting area or shooting range without a permit, whether concealed or not, including in a vehicle, is a felony.  As a result of these laws, and Hawaii’s geographic isolation from states with more lenient firearms laws, gun violence in Hawaii is rare and gun deaths even rarer.

The National Rifle Association’s push for concealed carry reciprocity at the federal level could change all this. In a self-serving perversion of the right-wing group's usual "states' rights" mania, The NRA wants Congress to require all 50 states to respect concealed carry permits issued by other states, potentially turning the whole country into a free fire zone. If nothing else, Elderts' shooting by a federal law enforcement officer, presumably better trained than the average gun owner in how to defuse a confrontation, should make clear the folly of such a change in he law.

If the NRA ever does succeed in its efforts to export the gun insanity prevalent across parts of the mainland to my island home, this white boy will probably be among the first to mutter "fucking haoles" under my breath. Or maybe even out loud.