DPS to probe own mistaken release

  • Brian Lee Smith
  • Hawaii Community Correctional Center's warden, Peter Cabreros. (HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald file photo)

KEALAKEKUA — A new restriction is in place for Hawaii Community Correctional Center inmate releases as Public Safety officials probe a July blunder that resulted in an accused murderer being erroneously released into the community.

Since Brian Lee Smith was mistakenly freed on July 24, the state Department of Public Safety has delegated the responsibility of releasing inmates from the Hilo jail to just two people — the warden and the chief of security, Deputy Attorney General Laura Maeshiro, representing the department, told 3rd Circuit Court Judge Melvin Fujino during a hearing in which the jail’s warden, Peter Cabreros, was to explain the mishap.

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Cabreros, however, did not address the court and few details were divulged Thursday after Fujino said that he would forego action on the matter pending the outcome of a DPS investigation into the incident.

Smith remained free for two days before calling to turn himself into police around 11 p.m. July 26.

“The court is cognizant that the Department of Public Safety is conducting its own internal investigation in to this case, and as such, the court will leave it up to the Department of Public Safety to determine what did or what did not happen regarding the release of the defendant, Brian Smith,” the judge said after noting there was “no excuse” for the incident.

In the meantime, Fujino asked Maeshiro what assurances the department could provide that such a mistake “will not happen again.”

Maeshiro said that in addition to delegating inmate releases to the warden and chief of security, the department is working with the Judiciary to develop an improved document transmission process to “serve as a check-and-balance to the hand-to-hand delivery type of procedures that are in place now,” which she described as “antiquated” and in need of “much improvement.”

Maeshiro also said the investigation is being done at the administrative level and involves no one employed at HCCC.

“The Department of Public Safety would like to sincerely apologize to the court, to the county prosecutor and to the community for this erroneous release,” Maeshiro said in closing. She declined comment after the hearing.

Also Thursday, Fujino suspended proceedings in the case pending a mental health examination by a three-doctor panel to determine Smith’s fitness to proceed with trial. The judge will take up the reports during a hearing slated Sept. 28.

The snafu came to light on July 26 when the Department of Public Safety announced that sheriffs and police were searching for Smith after a “mistaken release” two days earlier from HCCC.

Smith, who faces a murder charge for the June 23 death of Thomas Ballesteros Jr., was supposed to be held on $1.15 million bail after pleading not guilty on July 20 to charges of second-degree murder, second-degree attempted murder, first-degree attempted murder, two counts of ownership or possession (firearm) prohibited and two counts of carrying or use of a firearm in the commission of a separate felony filed in connection with the fatal shooting on Painted Church Road in Honaunau.

When the court was advised July 26 of Smith’s erroneous release, a hearing was held and Fujino issued a $2 million bench warrant for Smith’s arrest. Smith was taken back into custody hours later after calling police from Captain Cook to turn himself in.

He remains in custody at Hawaii Community Correctional Center in lieu of $2 million bail.

Thursday’s hearing marked the second time this year that Cabreros appeared before a 3rd Circuit Court judge in Kona to explain why a prisoner was released earlier than intended.

In March, Cabreros appeared before Judge Robert D.S. Kim with the Department of Public Safety’s attorney general Michelle Agsalda to address Kim’s concerns of the early releases of Adam Glassbrook, Tandi Ezzo and Ryan Wiles.

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During the hearing, Kim questioned the circumstances behind the release of each inmate and ultimately said he was satisfied with Agsalda’s responses but was concerned and hoped DPS and the Judiciary could come together to solve any miscommunications.

Email Chelsea Jensen at cjensen@westhawaiitoday.com.