Most of us, I’m sure, know that Hawaii is the most recently admitted state in the Union; it became a state in August 1959, the same year as Alaska, which joined seven months earlier. But even as Hawaii became part of the United States, it retained its own vibrant culture. I’ve had the privilege of visiting Hawaii twice, specifically the island of Oahu, where the capital city of Honolulu is located. As an Asian American, I felt a sense of “home” during those visits because Asian culture is prevalent there. However, I have not had the opportunity to visit the island of Maui. I was planning to take a trip to Maui next year because I wanted to visit the historic town of Lahaina, which was once the capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom. Wildfires hit the island of Maui on August 8, 2023; it was one of the deadliest wildfires in U.S. history. Lahaina, on Maui’s western peninsula, was hit the hardest, with most of the town reduced to ash and ruins. At the time I write this, at least 97 people are known to have been killed in Lahaina by the smoke and flames or by drowning (this number might change as there are still people unaccounted for). The wildfires in Maui are tragic and made me realize that while growing up, I had been taught virtually nothing of Hawaii’s history before it became a state. This led me to do a quick search on the legal history of Hawaii. I came across the Massie Cases. Prior to this search, I never had heard of them, even though they’re part of American legal history. It seems appropriate to discuss the Massie Cases, given that the theme of GPSolo magazine’s September/October 2023 issue is “Protest or Riot: An Overview of Accountability.”
The Massie Cases: A Brief Overview of Events
On September 13, 1931, Thalia Massie, a 20-year-old socialite and wife of a U.S. Navy officer, reported to Honolulu police officers that she had been beaten and raped by a group of men. According to her testimony, she had been attacked shortly after leaving a local nightclub called Ala Wai Inn at around midnight. Massie claimed to have been heading to her home in Manoa. Her story kept changing, and the police had no credible details regarding the assailants or their vehicle. Despite having no credible details, the police proceeded to arrest five local men in connection with the alleged crime: Benny Ahakuelo, Horace Ida, Joseph Kahahawai, David Takai, and Henry Chang. This group of young men had been involved in a minor road rage incident reported to the police on the evening of September 12, 1931, just hours before the alleged attack on Massie. The police inadvertently exposed details of the road rage incident to Massie and those with her. Massie later “identified” the five young men involved in the road rage incident as her attackers, even though she had earlier told the police that she could not see the people who attacked her or their car.
Because the young men were identified by Massie as her attackers, they were brought to trial despite inconsistencies in Massie’s story. A lack of evidence resulted in a mistrial by a hung jury. The young men were released on bail. People in the United States and members of the U.S. Navy stationed in Hawaii were unhappy with the result of a mistrial. Members of the Navy kidnapped Ida and beat him with belt buckles. Concerned for her daughter’s reputation, Massie’s mother, Grace Fortescue, concocted a plan with Massie’s husband and some other U.S. Navy servicemembers to kidnap one of the young men and beat him until he “confessed.” In January 1932, they kidnapped and then shot 22-year-old Kahahawai in the chest, and he bled to death. Massie’s mother, husband, and others involved with the murder of Kahahawai were caught by police trying to dispose of the body and led the police on a chase. Once caught, they were held on a U.S. Navy ship while awaiting trial. During this time of imprisonment, Fortescue was interviewed by the New York Times and said her only regret was getting caught; she added, “we were not breaking the law. We were endeavoring to aid the law. Our actions were not, to our way of thinking, illegal” (Joseph Kahahawai’s Murder, PBS.org (last visited Sept. 12, 2023)).
When Fortescue and the others who had originally been charged with murder were convicted by a jury of manslaughter and sentenced to ten years in prison, Lawrence M. Judd, Hawaii’s territorial governor, immediately commuted those sentences to one hour due to the immense political pressure he faced from the American public. The Massie party mingled with the press to have their pictures taken and discussed the trial immediately after that one-hour sentence. The Massie party was taken back to the mainland just four days later to escape being re-tried in the Hawaiian court.
In 1932, New York’s Pinkerton Detective Agency was hired by the territorial legislature to conduct an independent investigation. Their report concluded that it had not been possible for the five men to have committed the alleged rape and assault of Thalia Massie. They could not find substantial evidence that Thalia Massie had been raped at all. All charges against the accused men were dropped in February 1933.
Accountability and Access to Justice (or Lack Thereof)
Something to keep in mind is that Hawaii was still a U.S. territory at this time and not a U.S. state. This is important because the full force of U.S. law is not necessarily applicable in a U.S. territory as it would be in a U.S. state, something that is still an ongoing issue for U.S. territories today. Even so, this does not excuse Massie and her party’s actions in this case. Accountability is defined as “an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions,” according to Merriam-Webster. In the Massie Cases, it is clear that Massie and her party did not account for their actions. They did the exact opposite—they attempted to avoid accountability by intentionally hurting innocent parties.
Although all charges were ultimately dropped, Massie’s fabricated story cost the five suspects everything. The murder of Joseph Kahahawai highlighted racial and socioeconomic disparities in Hawaii, some of which still exist now. Kahahawai was laid to rest in a cemetery in Kapalama, where his gravestone still stands today. The four other suspects lived in the shadow of the case until their deaths.
The continuous fight for access to justice and equality is a very real issue today. The Massie Cases merely remind us that we must stay vigilant in that fight. I am constantly learning new legal cases, concepts, and strategies. Lawyer life has offered me a world of knowledge, and it has urged me to research things I do not know; it is our duty to teach ourselves and better ourselves as lawyers and as people.
Please consider helping victims of the Maui wildfires. You can make donations online via the ABA Fund for Justice and Education website.