Judge denies defendant’s request for release because of virus

  • LAURA RUMINSKI/West Hawaii Today Zeth Browder appears May 21 in Kona Circuit Court.

A Kona Circuit Court judge on Thursday denied release and set a trial date for a 19-year-old man accused of sexually assaulting a woman in her 70s last summer at a Kawaihae campground.

Judge Robert D.S Kim denied Special Deputy Attorney General Kristen Yamamoto’s motion to continue the trial of Zeth Browder filed May 13 since the issue was moot because of all jury trials being suspended until after June 30 by Hawaii Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald.

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Yamamoto argued via teleconference from Honolulu on May 21 that the victim was unable to appear in person amid the pandemic because of her advanced age and medical history, warranting the continuation of Browder’s jury trial that was set for June 2. Yamamoto is prosecuting the case because of an undisclosed conflict of interest with the Hawaii County Office of the Prosecuting Attorney.

Kim postponed his ruling until Thursday because the court was awaiting a new order from Recktenwald extending an April 27 order that postponed all jury trials to dates after May 29 to ensure the health and safety of court personnel and users and minimize the risk of spreading COVID-19 in the courts. On May 22, Recktenwald issued an order suspending all jury trials until after June 30, unless otherwise ordered by the chief judge of the respective circuit.

Kim set the new trial date for Sept. 1.

Deputy Public Defender James Greenberg, representing Browder, then argued in support of his motion to grant Browder supervised release for humanitarian reasons, stating jail is a dangerous place to be during the coronavirus pandemic. It was the second time Browder’s attorney filed the motion, following an attempt in April that was withdrawn when Browder was unable to secure a place of residence.

“I don’t think he should be considered dangerous. He has no prior record of violence or criminal convictions,” argued Greenberg.

Greenberg also stated Browder, who appeared Thursday via video conference, is innocent until proven guilty, has been in jail for a year and called the victim’s testimony a “fictitious report.” He acquiesced Browder still does not have a place to stay if released, but noted that was not a requirement for supervised release.

Yamamoto argued Browder was indicted by a grand jury and is a danger to the community, referring to the Intake Service report from June 19, 2019, stating he was not eligible for release because of the seriousness of the felony charges, his homelessness and previous drug use.

Kim denied Greenberg’s motion to grant Browder supervised release, agreeing with prosecutors that the teen posed a threat to the community.

Browder has been confined at Hawaii Community Correctional Center in lieu of $166,000 bail since his arrest last June. He pleaded not guilty to two counts each of first-degree sexual assault and third-degree sexual assault and one count each of first-degree burglary, kidnapping and tampering with evidence.

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According to prosecutors and police, the female victim, now 79 years old, reported that she was sexually assaulted by a man who was also camping at Spencer Beach Park, a county facility in South Kohala. Police identified and subsequently charged Browder in connection with the alleged crime.

Email Laura Ruminski at lruminski@westhawaiitoday.com.

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