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Charges against church elder in Nuuuli assault case are dismissed

American Samoa District Court building
Judge says the gov’t failed to present enough evidence

Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — District Court Judge Elvis P. Patea has dismissed the charges against one of the co-defendants in the Nuuuli Church of Christ assault case, for which seven church members were arrested in September 2019 on the allegation that they assaulted a couple - also church members.

The dismissal came after the government failed to present enough evidence to support its case against Neru Soli, a former pastor and current elder, who was charged with third degree assault and public peace disturbance - both misdemeanors.

(See Samoa News Sept. 17, 2019 edition for full story).

Soli appeared in court last week for a bench trial. He was represented by Assistant Public Defender, Bob Stuart while Laura Garvey prosecuted. The government called one witness while the defense called three, including Soli.

The government witness testified that she didn’t see anything because she was outside the church building when it all went down. When asked if she saw Soli throw any punches at the victim, the witness said no. She also denied hearing Soli being loud that day, so as to disturb the public peace.

Soli, 64, testified that he became a member of the church in 1981 and has been active since, serving as a pastor in both Samoa and American Samoa. “I consider myself the only senior member of the church at this time, and I’m also an ordained elder and a preacher,” Soli told the court.

According to Soli’s testimony, he wasn’t present during the first incident where victim #1 was assaulted in front of the church by three female church members (co-defendants). He was only present during the second incident, inside the church, where victim #2 was assaulted by church members.

Soli said that when he entered the church, he saw victim #2 make his way to the front and that’s when Tautua Ioane (one of the co-defendants) punched victim #2 in the face, causing him to fall down. According to the government, it was after Ioane punched victim #2 that other church members - including Soli - joined the assault by punching and kicking the man.

But Soli testified under oath that he never laid a hand on victim #2, that the assault occurred at the front portion of the church while he was at the back. He said he made his way to the front because his role as an elder and a senior member of the church is to calm things down and stop people from fighting.

The other two defense witnesses, Kaino Aaitai and Laauli Mase, echoed Soli’s testimony. Aaitai said he saw Soli walk to the front and try to separate everyone, and in a normal tone, he told church members not to make trouble in the church. Mase said he saw Soli stand on a chair and tell church members not to cause any more trouble. “I saw Soli try his best to stop the fight; but he never assaulted victim #2,” Mase told the court.

After hearing all the evidence, Judge Patea ruled that the government failed to present sufficient evidence to support its case against Soli. And for that reason, the case is dismissed. Church members who filled the courtroom clapped when the ruling was issued.