Marsland: Taking On The Local Mob

Dan Boylan
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Wednesday - April 18, 2007

Chuck Marsland died last week. He was 84.

Marsland had been out of the public eye for a decade and a half, but from 1981 to 1988 he served as Honolulu’s elected city prosecutor.

And, oh, what a prosecutor he was.

Marsland was the lawman from central casting. Long, lean, mustached - physically he appeared the determined marshal striding down the dusty street, dead set on taming the Old West.

But it wasn’t a role with Marsland. In 1980s Honolulu, he aggressively pursued killers, rapists, organized crime figures, pornographers, and - perhaps most famously - judges that ruled against him. He prosecuted with passion - a passion fueled by the killing of his beloved son Charles “Chuckers” Marsland III in 1975.

Marsland’s legacy was twofold: a weakened organized crime syndicate and a generation of prosecutors who shared his clang-the-jail-house-door-shut philosophy of criminal justice. Lt. Gov. and former Judge Duke Aiona, former prosecutor and prison administrator Keith Kaneshiro, Federal Prosecutor Ed Kubo, and current Honolulu Prosecutor Peter Carlisle all came out of Marsland’s shop.

In the political desert of Republican politics in the 1980s, Marsland offered hope to the GOP faithful as a possible mayoral or gubernatorial candidate.

But ultimately he proved too much the prosecutor. Marsland was politically one-dimensional; he wanted to get the bad guys, and anyone who got in his way became an object of Marsland’s criticism and derision.

He publicly criticized practically every judge who failed to convict or who came down with a sentence lighter than the Prosecutor’s Office had requested. Too often, from the perspective of building wide ethnic support, those judges were Japanese or Filipino Americans, thus making Marsland a critic of jurists of whom members of key ethnic voting blocs were proud.

And as the decade of the ‘80s grew older, Marsland’s frequent criticisms sounded more like whining - so much so that in 1988 one of his deputies, Keith Kaneshiro, defeated him for reelection.

Marsland’s brief electoral career highlights a problem for all prosecutors who seek other offices: their one-dimensionality. Prosecutors live to win cases against bad guys and to lobby for stiffer laws that will make it easier to pursue, arrest and convict bad guys.

But mayors, governors and members of Congress deal with issues far more numerous than crime: roads, sewers, education, transportation, housing, poverty, health care, war, annual deficits and national debts, mental health, foreign policy, terrorism, nuclear threats - to name a few.

For a prosecutor to triumph on a larger electoral stage, crime must threaten a majority of the voters out of proportion to all other issues facing the commonwealth.

Or the political ambitious prosecutor must define himself as more broadly gauged than the aggressive crime-fighter. And that, in an age when all issues are complex, isn’t an easy thing to do. The experienced legislator, who has confronted an array of issues every session, usually comes across as far better prepared for a promotion.

Marsland was also, I suppose, a reflection of the Reagan evolution in Hawaii. The nation turned right, and briefly - sporadically - so too did Hawaii. The Gipper carried Hawaii in the 1984 election. Mayor Frank Fasi became a Republican. Three Democratic city councilmen turned coats as well, joining the Republican herd (small as it was). In 1986, Pat Saiki became the first GOP member of Congress from Hawaii.

One of the hallmarks of Ronald Reagan’s America was replacing incarceration for social policy. We began throwing our fellow citizens in prison as fast as humanly possible. Three strikes legislation and funding for the construction of new prisons became the order of the day.

Chuck Marsland - for good and ill - understood the spirit of those times.

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