As county prosecutor, Kaua’i native Shaylene Iseri-Carvalho is passionate about making the island a safer place
Confronting alleged criminals face-to-face in a courtroom on a regular basis is no easy task. But when the outcome could potentially help a victim find closure to a traumatic situation, it is all Kaua’i County Prosecutor Shaylene Iseri-Carvalho needs to stay motivated and step up to the challenge.
“To get a conviction and to have a victim appreciate all the work that has been done by this office and myself is the type of satisfaction that you would not get in any other occupation,” says Hawaii’s first elected female prosecutor. “There is absolutely nothing like that, and it really makes you realize that is your purpose in life.”
Determined to make Kaua’i a safer place, IseriCarvalho is passionate about keeping criminals off the streets.
“Kaua’i is a very special place to me because I was born and raised here, but it is also a very special place for all of the people who come here,” she says.
Preserving the rural lifestyle of the island is something Iseri-Carvalho says she aims to do, as she reminisces about the days when people used to leave car doors unlocked while they lounged on the beach or grabbed groceries.
“It’s something you cannot do anymore, and that’s kind of disheartening when you think about it because that’s the kind of lifestyle we grew up in, and it’s changed,” she says.
The economy also was much less of a trigger for cases such as domestic violence, she says, and people were much less inclined to prey on their neighbors’ vulnerability.
Last year, 500 more felony cases were filed in circuit court than in 2008.
“The volume is unbelievable,” she says of the 1,500 total cases filed in 2009, up 500 from the previous year.
The good news is that the conviction rate for domestic violence cases before she was elected was 64 percent at its highest. Now that rate is up to to 97 percent.
“You put your heart, soul and passion into everything you do,” she says. “That’s the only way this office can be successful.”
The amount of work has yet to be a deterrent for the entire team of ambitious, dedicated, focused community-oriented attorneys on staff who lack the luxury of personal secretaries most private law firms come equipped with, she says.
Yet, despite the long hours, “as hard as she works, she is never tired,” says deputy prosecuting attorney Lauren McDowell of Iseri-Carvalho. “She is always full of enthusiasm and drive.”
A graduate of University of Colorado and University of Hawaii William S. Richardson School of Law, Iseri-Carvalho always knew she wanted to be an attorney.
“You get paid to speak your mind,” she says. “That was really the motivating factor for me.”
Her legal journey actually began at the age of 16 when Iseri-Carvalho served as a legislative aide for Alu Like, representing Kaua’i and assisting Native Hawaiians.
After graduating from Kapa’a High School and pursuing a degree in economics and political science, it wasn’t long before she found herself back in the Aloha State attending law school on a full scholarship, earning her diploma in 1989.
Briefly clerking for Judge Donald Tsukiyama, drafting memos for murder trials, and serving as a deputy public defender on Oahu and Maui for four years, Iseri-Carvalho’s “canoe” finally journeyed back home to Kaua’i in 1996.
She was appointed as a Kaua’i County deputy prosecuting attorney, during which time she was recognized by the attorney general for increasing sexual assault offense arrests 1,000 percent, and achieving a conviction rate of 96 percent for violent crime and sexual assault cases.
Still, the criminal justice system is far from perfect, admits Iseri-Carvalho, who also found time to serve on the Kaua’i County Council from 2004 to 2008.
Even though prosecuting James Mundon – who is coming up for sentence and was found guilty of abducting and sexually assaulting a visitor in 2004 – was one of her greatest accomplishments, she says “it was also the most heart-wrenching trial I had ever experienced.”
Not only was the trial drawn out over several years, the defendant was allowed to represent himself.
“What that meant was that he could question the witness about all of the gory details,” IseriCarvalho says. “To see her reaction and reliving that traumatic event was tearful.”
That was the moment she felt an imbalance in the system.
“We’re raised as Americans and we’re very proud of our Constitution and our constitutional rights,” she says. “Yet in that scenario I can see how those constitutional rights can be abused where the victim was tortured on the stand.”
While Iseri-Carvalho says she has had a most fulfilling career thus far, this incident proved to her just how much more there is to be done.
One thing that tops her list of priorities for improving the justice system on Kaua’i involves a series of meetings her office recently conducted across the island engaging members of the community in crime prevention efforts.
“Bringing forth the kind of work you do in the community and having them have their trust in you, of course, will enable you to get more successful convictions,” she says. “And hopefully with the community’s eyes, this will help prevent the kind of criminal activity we’ve been seeing.
“We really need the support of the community to ensure that the victims are made whole and to hold suspects accountable.”
Iseri-Carvalho – whose term began in 2008 and draws to a close in 2012 – credits her upbringing for much of her passion in assisting others. Her late father, Tsuneo “Joe” Iseri, worked in construction and her mother, Flora, is now retired from cooking in Kapaa High cafeteria. Together Joe and Flora had 10 children.
“My family has always been one of helping out and taking care of others first, and this value system is one that was instilled in me at a very young age,” says the mother of two – La’akea and Deshayne’e – and wife of Destry, a sales rep with Frito-Lay.
“I have never seen anyone work harder than Shaylene,” says deputy prosecuting attorney John Murphy.
She has an “endless amount of passion for and dedication to her job as prosecutor,” agreed deputy prosecuting attorney Tracy Murakami.
“Shaylene is a true public servant,” says law clerk Jake Delaplane. “Her clear commitment and dedication to the community is inspiring.”
For more information, go to kauai.gov/prosecutingattorney.