Mental exam for driver called ‘a danger to himself and others’

  • ERIC-JOHN SEMANA

  • JOHN BURNETT/Tribune-Herald Eric-John Semana, left, appears Tuesday with attorney Jeremy Butterfield in Hilo Circuit Court.

Sentencing was delayed and a mental exam ordered for a 23-year-old Keaau man who pleaded no contest to a lesser charge stemming from a single-car collision more than four years ago that killed a passenger.

Eric-John Semana was to be sentenced Tuesday after pleading no contest in February to second-degree negligent homicide for a Feb. 18, 2016, collision on Highway 11 in Keaau that killed 18-year-old Albert Gonsalves of Keaau and injured Semana and two other passengers, both 18-year-old men.

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In return for the plea from Semana, who was also 18 when the fatal crash occurred, prosecutors reduced the charge from first-degree negligent homicide, a Class B felony that carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison upon conviction. Second-degree negligent homicide is a Class C felony that carries a possible five-year prison term.

The postponement in sentencing — which was granted with a new date of 8 a.m. Aug. 18 — was requested by Semana’s court-appointed attorney, Jeremy Butterfield.

“There are other matters that we believe should be dealt with and, possibly, all considered together during the sentencing,” Butterfield told Hilo Circuit Judge Henry Nakamoto, an apparent reference to an alleged high-speed police chase that resulted in Semana’s arrest June 25.

Deputy Prosecutor Suzanna Tiapula didn’t object to the requested continuance, but described Semana as “a danger to himself and others.”

“We would simply note that the defendant is set for a (preliminary hearing) this afternoon on traffic matters in which he drove recklessly on Saddle Road, past a police officer … in a no-passing zone at a speed of over 100 (mph). At one point, he was driving 120 miles per hour, ran through a red light (and) almost hit another police officer … ,” Tiapula told the judge.

When Tiapula mentioned the 100 mph speed, Semana — who appeared in custody and was wearing a mask as required in the courtroom because of the COVID-19 pandemic — tilted his head in apparent disagreement, but remained silent.

According to police, they received a call from another motorist about a Hilo-bound gray 2011 BMW sedan passing at a high rate of speed in a no-passing zone at about the 34-mile marker of Daniel K. Inouye Highway, also known as Saddle Road, near the Army’s Pohakuloa Training Area.

Police reportedly picked up pursuit at about the 11-mile marker, but Semana eluded them at least twice, according to court documents. Documents state they later encountered Semana on Kamehameha Avenue in Hilo and witnessed him ditching the car on the Suisan Bridge, jumping off the bridge into a parking lot and running away.

According to police, an officer apprehended Semana after a foot chase.

He was charged with resisting arrest plus three counts each of reckless driving, excessive speeding and resisting an order to stop.

A warrant was issued for revocation of Semana’s release on the $10,000 bail for the negligent homicide charge. The bail on the revocation warrant was set by Nakamoto at $50,000.

Butterfield requested a reduction of that amount and asked for “bail to be set at a reasonable amount.”

“Under the circumstances, given the allegations (and) the similarity to the current case, the court believes the bail is appropriate,” Nakamoto replied.

The scheduled preliminary hearing on the new charges didn’t occur.

Instead, Deputy Public Defender Patrick Munoz requested an examination of Semana by three mental health professionals, with no objection by Tiapula.

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Hilo District Judge Kanani Laubach granted the defense request, with reports due Aug. 4, and maintained Semana’s bail at $28,010 on the new charges.

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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