The Little Known Case of Harry Kaheleiki

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Read this article in ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi

In 1932, Honolulu was in an uproar after Thalia Fortescue Massie, a Navy wife and Washington, D.C., socialite, claimed she was assaulted and raped by “locals.” This led to the arrest of five young men, three Native Hawaiians and two Japanese, and public opinion was deeply divided along racial lines. When the men were released after a mistrial was declared, the Caucasian and military community was outraged.

Massie’s mother, husband and two others kidnapped one of the young men, Joseph Kahahawai, in an attempt to force his confession – but the night ended with his murder. The vigilantes were tried and convicted of manslaughter for Kahahawai’s death but went unpunished. The case, known as the Massie Affair, made headlines in Hawaiʻi and across the United States. It also underscored the systemic racism of the legal system.

Back in 1863, a little-known case involving another falsely accused Native Hawaiian generated similar racial tension.

Isaac Hussey, the captain of the whaling ship William Penn, was murdered off the island of Kosrae in Micronesia when members of his crew mutinied in response to harsh treatment. Hussey was killed in the skirmish by a Native Hawaiian crew member. That was in 1852.

Eleven years later, a man named Harry Kaheleiki visited San Francisco.

Kaheleiki had no connection to the William Penn or to the mutiny that occurred 11 years earlier in Micronesia. However, while he was in San Francisco, white sailors who had been on the William Penn during the mutiny claimed to “recognize” Kaheleiki as the man who had killed Hussey.

Without evidence, they incited a mob and attempted to lynch Kaheleiki. The police intervened and prevented the lynching, but Kaheleiki was nevertheless arrested, charged, and eventually found guilty of murder by an all-Haole jury. Kaheleiki insisted that he had been in Honolulu at the time. But his fluency in English was limited and he was not given a translator.

The jury sentenced Kaheleiki to death.

The Kaheleiki case caused a surge of anti-Hawaiian sentiment in San Francisco, endangering the Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities in the area.

Rev. Luther Gulick, a former missionary in both Hawaiʻi and Micronesia, heard about the Kaheleiki case. He wrote to then-Interior Minister Prince Lot Kamehameha about the situation. The prince, (the future King Kamehameha V), was deeply moved by the blatant miscarriage of justice.

Historian and judge John Papa ʻĪʻī and High Chief Caesar Kapaʻakea volunteered to help Kaheleiki. They were dispatched as representatives of the Hawaiian government to advocate for Kaheleiki and the larger Hawaiian community in California.

Kapaʻakea testified that Kaheleiki was in Honolulu throughout most of the 1850s and produced employment records as evidence. ʻĪʻī also testified on behalf of Kaheleiki, producing missionary records and citing various U.S. legal precedents challenging the trial and the verdict.

The case was appealed to the Supreme Court of California which overturned Kaheleiki’s guilty verdict stating, “it is better that 10 guilty persons escape, than that one innocent suffer.”

Had it not been for the intervention of the Hawaiian government and the delegation sent to California, Kaheleiki would have been executed for a crime he did not commit.

The deep-rooted racism that tarnishes the legal system, then and now, serves as a reminder that Kānaka Maoli must be vigilant and insist that that race, national origin, language, religion, economic or social status do not interfere with justice.