Court finds former Chief Immigration Officer not guilty on all charges
Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — After weeks of deliberation and a close look at the evidence presented by the government, the Trial Division of the High Court of American Samoa has found former Chief Immigration Officer, Peseta Dennis Fuimaono, not guilty of all charges against him.
The court stated that from the evidence presented, they find that the government failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt any criminal intent or substantial step attributed to the defendant.
The decision was handed down by Associate Justice Fiti Sunia, accompanied by Chief Associate Judge Mamea Sala Jr and Associate Judge Tunupopo Alalafaga.
Prosecuting the case was Independent Prosecutor, David Vargas while private attorney, Togiola T. A Tulafono represented Peseta. The government charged Peseta with attempt to hinder prosecution, attempted kidnapping, and attempt to obstruct government operations.
Peseta appeared before the court at the beginning of November for a bench trial.
In a 9-page decision, the court stated that to convict Peseta on any of these charges, the government must prove the charged offenses beyond a reasonable doubt.
Proof beyond a reasonable doubt leaves the fact finder (in this case the justice and judges) firmly convinced of a defendant’s guilt. The government, therefore, had the burden to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that defendant specifically intended to hinder prosecution, kidnap Simeleke, or obstruct a government operation, and that defendant took substantial step towards committing any of these crimes.
SUMMARY OF EVIDENCE
Evidence showed that in 2008, Simeleke Tainafi (victim) entered American Samoa from Samoa and lived with Fiu J. Saelua at his family home in Leone. Simeleke’s husband, Maori Sipai joined her at Fiu’s home to care for her mother. The couple remained in the territory under the immigration sponsorship of Fiu’s sister, Sinu’u Toelupe, who lived elsewhere.
The allegation against Peseta stems from an incident in December of 2016 where the government accused him of orchestrating the attempted removal of a couple, Simeleke Tainafi and Maori Sipai, from the territory.
It was alleged that the move was intended to prevent the prosecution of then Chief of Staff to Governor Lolo Moliga, Fiu Johnny Saelua, whom Simekeke had accused of sexually abusing her when she was living with Fiu’s family.
Simeleke testified during the bench trial that beginning in 2014, Fiu repeatedly made unwanted sexual advances towards her. At some point, Fiu’s behavior progressed to touching her breast. Finding her situation unbearable, Simeleke left Fiu’s home on Oct. 1, 2016 to live with the Paopao family of Leone.
With deep concern for her mother who was still live in Fiu’s home, Simeleke returned to Fiu’s home to discuss her reason for leaving on Oct. 10, 2016. Simeleke during the meeting with Fiu and his family, told of Fiu’s inappropriate behavior.
Simeleke testified that as a result of her report, she was assaulted by one of Fiu’s daughter’s at the meeting. Simeleke said she had no plan of filing criminal charges against Fiu at that time.
During the bench trial, the supervisor of the Office of Immigration, Investigations Division, Paelo Puni, said he had sent immigration agents Itai Sataua and Jerry Gaisoa to “bring the couple in” as their immigration sponsor Sinuu Toelupe, had revoked her sponsorship.
Itai and Jerry went to the Paopao’s residence in Leone, left with Simeleke in an immigration vehicle, and drove to pick-up Simeleke’s husband from his workplace. Simeleke testified that she felt she could not resist the officers, but that she was not restrained or otherwise compelled to leave with the officers.
From there, the two immigration officers (IO) drove to Sinu’u’s business (American Samoa Insurance) in Nu’uuli where Sinu’u’s daughter on instruction from her mother, signed the termination letter.
The IOs then drove the couple to the wharf and left them there without instructions. During the drive to the wharf, Simeleke said she heard an immigration officer say the word “chief” on the telephone.
The government presented during the trial that the couple was to be sent to Samoa on the Lady Naomi that day, December 1, 2016. However immigration officer Sam Soliai testified that while the husband had his passport, Simeleke didn’t. And the boat left that day for Samoa without the couple.
Later that day, an off-duty immigration officer by the name of Jason Laumoli then transported Simeleke and her husband to the immigration office at the Executive Office Building where the Paopao picked them up and took them back to Leone.
Two weeks later, Ipu Avegalio Lefiti, a domestic violence victim’s advocate, sought out Simeleke and persuaded her to file a complaint against Fiu with the police. On December 15, 2016, Simeleke went to the police, resulting in an investigation that brought criminal charges against Fiu, including a felony sex offense.
Fiu then entered into a plea agreement with the government whereby he agreed to testify against defendant Peseta in exchange for the government’s dismissal of his felony charge.
The court stated in its decision that the government argues that the removal of Simeleke from the Paopao’s home by two immigration officers, Itai and Jerry on Dec. 1, 2016, and delivering her to the wharf proves beyond a reasonable doubt that defendant took a substantial step towards hindering Fiu’s prosecution, kidnapping Simeleke, and obstruction of a government operation — the prosecution of Fiu.
“Without question,” said the court, “Itai and Jerry, under color of law as immigration officers removed Simeleke from the Paopao residence in Leone and took her to the wharf. However, there is no proof that defendant directed or controlled Simeleke’s removal and transport, or that defendant intended to kidnap or wrongfully remove Simekeke from the territory to hinder or obstruct Fiu’s prosecution.
According to the court, evidence shows that Paelo sent Itai and Jerry to pick-up Simeleke, an occurrence triggered by Sinu’u who was motivated by her fear of immigration sponsorship liability.
The court found, “This contradictory evidence raises reasonable doubt about the government’s only proof of the substantial step element and weakens the government’s theory that defendant orchestrated Simeleke’s removal.
“We may as the government urges, circumstantially find any fact in a criminal prosecution such as defendant’s substantial step or criminal intent.
“Nonetheless the irrefutable testimonies of Paelo and Sinuu irreparably breaks any circumstantial link between defendant and events of December 1, 2916. Moreover the government’s argument only works as far as Fiu’s testimony allows.”
But the court found Fiu’s testimony wanting.
“However Fiu’s testimony lacks any credibility since his freedom clearly motivated him to testify as he was coached by the government, albeit in an evasive and uncertain manner. “
The court concluded, “Based on the evidence presented it would be irresponsible of this court to circumstantially conclude that defendant intentionally took steps to remove Simeleke from the territory for the purpose of committing the crimes of hindering prosecution, attempted kidnapping and obstrutting a government operation.
“We find the defendant not guilty of all charges.”
A little bit over two years after this case was filed, Peseta appeared in High Court on Nov. 2nd, 2021 for a bench trial which lasted 3 days before the case was handed over to the panel of Judges to decide.
While Vargas strongly believes that the government presented enough evidence during trial to support its case against Peseta, Togiola argued during closing arguments that none of the evidence connected his client to the alleged crime.