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Two Native Hawaiians get prison in a crime that exposed the state's racial complexity

This photo provided by Kawena Alo-Kaonohi shows a view looking down into Kahakuloa village in Wailuku, Hawaii, on Jan. 18, 2020. The village was the scene of a brutal attack in 2014.
Courtesy of Kawena Alo-Kaonohi via AP
This photo provided by Kawena Alo-Kaonohi shows a view looking down into Kahakuloa village in Wailuku, Hawaii, on Jan. 18, 2020. The village was the scene of a brutal attack in 2014.

Updated March 3, 2023 at 11:48 AM ET

HONOLULU — Two Native Hawaiian men wouldn't have brutally beaten a man if he weren't white, a U.S. judge said Thursday in sentencing them to yearslong prison terms for a hate crime in a case that reflects Hawaii's nuanced and complicated relationship with race.

A jury convicted Kaulana Alo-Kaonohi and Levi Aki Jr. in November, finding that they were motivated by Christopher Kunzelman's race when they punched, kicked and used a shovel to beat him in 2014. His injuries included a concussion, two broken ribs and head trauma.

Local lawyers believe this is the first time the U.S. has prosecuted Native Hawaiians for hate crimes. The unique case highlights the struggles between Native Hawaiians who are adamant about not having their culture erased and people who move to Hawaii without knowing or considering its history and racial dynamics.

Alluding to the uniqueness of the case, U.S. District Judge J. Michael Seabright said the attack is different from other hate crimes, such as going to an African American church and shooting or targeting a nightclub full of people from a certain ethnic group or sexual orientation.

Attorneys for Aki and Alo-Kaonohi say it wasn't Kunzelman's race that provoked them, but his entitled and disrespectful attitude.

Seabright said Thursday he understands the argument that Alo-Kaonohi isn't racist, but, "You were a racist on that day." He sentenced Alo-Kaonohi to six and a half years in prison.

He later sentenced Aki to four years and two months in prison.

Tensions began over a dilapidated, oceanfront home in Kahakuloa, a small village off a narrow road with hairpin turns and sweeping ocean views at the end of a valley on Maui, an island known for luxurious resorts.

Growing up in the village, Alo-Kaonohi would "hunt, fish, farm, live off the land," he wrote in a letter to Seabright. "To make a little money, I would sell coconuts, mango, flowers, bananas on the side of the road to tourists who would be passing through to see the beautiful scenery of Kahakuloa."

Chico Kaonohi, left, prays with Priscilla Hoʻopiʻi, center, and Lana Vierra, right, in November 2022 outside U.S. District Court in Honolulu, after his Native Hawaiian son was found guilty of a hate crime in the 2014 beating of a white man.
Jennifer Sinco Kelleher / AP
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AP
Chico Kaonohi (from eft) prays with Priscilla Hoʻopiʻi and Lana Vierra in November 2022 outside U.S. District Court in Honolulu, after his Native Hawaiian son was found guilty of a hate crime in the 2014 beating of a white man.

Kunzelman and his wife purchased the house sight-unseen for $175,000 because she wanted to leave Scottsdale, Arizona, to live near the ocean after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

"We loved Maui; we loved the people," Lori Kunzelman told The Associated Press, describing how her husband planned to fix up the house himself.

He was starting to do that when the attack happened, she said.

"It was obviously a hate crime from the very beginning," she said. "The whole time they're saying things like, 'You have the wrong skin color. No 'haole' is ever going to live in our neighborhood.'"

"Haole," a Hawaiian word with meanings that include foreigner and white person, is central to the case. It's a word often misunderstood by people who don't comprehend Hawaii's history of U.S. colonization and the 1893 overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom by a group of American businessmen, said Judy Rohrer, author of a book titled "Haoles in Hawai'i."

White people who move to Hawaii are unaccustomed to being identified racially and are "not used to thinking about whiteness," said Rohrer, who grew up white in Hawaii and is now a professor at Eastern Washington University. "We're used to being in the majority and then we get to Hawaii and all of a sudden we're not in the majority, and that makes us uncomfortable."

Of Hawaii's 1.5 million residents, about 38% are Asian, 26% are white, 2% are Black, and many people are multiple ethnicities, according to U.S. census figures. Native Hawaiians account for about 20% of the population.

But it's more than racial, Rohrer said, explaining how the Hawaiian word has become part of Hawaii Pidgin, the creole language of the islands, to describe behavior or attitudes not in sync with local culture.

"Acting haole" means "acting out of entitlement, and like you own the place," she said.

In video recorded by cameras on Kunzelman's vehicle parked under the house, only one racial utterance can be heard, defense attorneys said. Aki is heard saying, "You's a haole, eh."

Kunzelman testified that what's not audible in the video is the men calling him "haole" in a derogatory way.

"When you watch the video ... there was almost like enthusiasm," Seabright said. "Maybe that's what's so disturbing about this case."

The men took Kunzelman's phone, which recorded the attack, and threw it in the ocean, said Christopher Perras of the U.S. Department of Justice's civil rights division.

After the assault, Aki referred to Kunzelman to police as a "rich Haole guy," a "dumb haole," and a "typical haole thinking he owning everything ... trying to change things up in Kahakuloa," prosecutors said.

Tiare Lawrence, a Native Hawaiian community advocate on Maui, said she doesn't condone the attack but is deeply familiar with the tensions that permeate the case.

"The threat of outsiders coming in ... brings a lot of sadness for Hawaiians who are trying so hard to hold on to what little piece of paradise we have left," she said. As an example, she cited efforts to revitalize the Hawaiian language after it was banned in schools in the wake of the overthrow.

Kunzelman came to the village saying he wanted to help residents improve their homes and boost property values, without considering that higher property values come with higher property taxes in a state with the highest cost of living, the defense attorneys said. But the tipping point came when Kunzelman cut locks to village gates, they said.

Kunzelman testified he did so because residents were locking him in and out. He testified that he wanted to provide the village with better locks and distribute keys to residents.

"The hate crime messed me up," Kunzelman said in court Thursday.

He said they "brutally attacked me out of hate for the color of my skin," leaving him with lasting emotional and psychological damage.

They could have killed Kunzelman, Seabright said, but added that Alo-Kaonohi and Aki should also be glad to be alive. Kunzelman had a gun during the attack, Seabright said, but chose not to use it.

"He had a right to defend himself," Seabright said. "He didn't use that firearm."

In a letter to the judge, Aki said he doesn't see himself as racist: "Not only because I am almost half-Caucasian but also because I have people who I love and care about who are white."

In court, Aki told the judge he's ashamed of his immature and hurtful words and actions. Alo-Kaonohi also apologized in court: "I'm sorry for putting my hands on Christopher Kunzelman."

Both men were prosecuted in state court for the assault. Alo-Kaonohi pleaded no contest to felony assault and was sentenced to probation, while Aki pleaded no contest to terroristic threatening and was sentenced to probation and nearly 200 days in jail.

Alo-Kaonohi was also sentenced to a year in prison for an assault at a Maui bar soon after the Kunzelman attack.

For the federal hate crime, prosecutors asked for a sentence of about nine years for Alo-Kaonohi and six and a half years for Aki.

Lori Kunzelman acknowledged being unaware of Hawaiian history and said she has since learned about it.

"But attacking an individual white man doesn't change history or improve things or justify actions on anybody's part," she said.

The Kunzelmans still own the Kahakuloa home but split their time between Arizona and Puerto Rico.

"We couldn't even sell it to anybody because it's not safe," Lori Kunzelman said. "It's not safe because of the animosity that's there."

In an attempt to convey the animosity, prosecutors during the trial portrayed village residents as saying things like, "this is a Hawaiian village," and "the only thing coming from the outside is electricity."

But several non-Hawaiians who live or have lived peacefully in the village told the AP they never had problems.

"I am 82 years old. I have lived here for 50 years," said Bruce Turnbull, a white, retired teacher who lives near Alo-Kaonohi's family. "I've learned in Hawaii, coming from the outside in, it's a good thing to live by the people around you and not tell them to live by you and your values."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Associated Press