A federal judge granted a request by prosecutors this morning to dismiss the forced labor charges and related counts against brothers Alec and Mike Sou of Aloun Farms.
In the stunning announcement, Assistant U.S. Attorney Susan Cushman told U.S. District Judge Susan Oki Mollway that the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., and the local U.S. Attorneys Office were asking for the dismissal “in the interests of justice.”
Mollway granted the request to permanently dismiss the case.
“The case is closed,” she said.
Cushman said the decision to drop the case was made after discussions last night and this morning with the Justice Department’s civil rights division in Washington D.C.
“It’s the right thing to do,” U. S. Attorney Florence Nakakuni said.
The dismissal came before the start of what would have been the fourth day of a trial that was expected to span more than a month.
Asked how he felt, Alec Sou said, “Super-elated, man. It’s like 10 tons of watermelon lifted off my shoulder.”
The Sous’ lawyers were also elated.
“This confirms what we believed all along that this prosecution was baselesss and without merit,” Mike Sou’s attorney Thomas Otake said.
“We’re pleased with the dismissal and extremely happy,” Alec Sou’s lawyer Thomas Bienert Jr. said.
Clare Hanusz, a civil attorney representing some of the Thai nationals who worked as laborers at Aloun Farms and who were scheduled to testify in the trial, was in the gallery when the was dismissed.
“It was as much of a shock to me as it was to everyone else,” she said.”The victims never got the opportunity to be heard and that for me is the hardest thing about the decision.”
The Sou brothers, who faced 12 forced-labor charges and related felony counts, were alleged to have made Thai workers live in overcrowded conditions without adequate food, took their passports away, and did not pay them promised wages.
The workers had each paid recruiters between $16,000 to $20,000 to get the jobs but lived in overcrowded conditions, some in metal storage containers without plumbing, she said.
Defense lawyers contended the workers weren’t mistreated and that the prosecution’s case is based on Thai workers who made up the allegations to remain in Hawaii as victims of human trafficking.
The trial started last week but the prosecution’s case immediately ran into trouble.
On Tuesday, Susan French, the lead federal attorney, was excused from the case for health reasons after she acknowledged making misstatements before the grand jury. The remaining two prosecutors asked for a recess in the trial until Friday to enable two senior Justice Department civil rights attorneys from Washington, D. C. to travel here and assist in the case.
But lawyers for defendants Alec and Mike Sou suggested that the prosecution was also asking for help because of the misstatements about recruitment fees paid by Thai laborers to come to Hawaii and work on the farms.
In asking for the dismissal, Cushman did not mention French’s departure from the case.
French, a Justice Department civil rights attorney from Washington, had asked a grand jury witness whether he knew under the visa program that the Thai laborers could not be assessed recruitment fees. At the time, the law didn’t prohibit the fees.
“From our perspective the government’s entire case is unraveling because it was based on a faulty premise,” Alec Sou’s lawyer Bienert told Mollway on Tuesday.
The Sous had faced the prospect of a prison term, with the most serious charges of forced labor carrying a prison term of up to 20 years.
The Sous operate Kapolei-based Aloun Farms, one of Oahu’s largest agricultural businesses, growing vegetables and fruits on the Ewa plain after the demise of the sugar industry.
The brothers had gained support last year from former Govs. John Waihee and Ben Cayetano and community leaders when the Sous faced sentencing after they pleaded guilty to a felony charge as part of a plea agreement.
But Mollway rejected the plea agreement, the guilty pleas were withdrawn and the Sous were later re-indicted on the original and additional charges.