Charges dropped in Hawaii forced labor trial

Cleared of human trafficking charges, farmers Alec and Mike Sou want to get back to growing crops instead of defending themselves against allegations they forced 44 workers from Thailand to harvest melons, lettuce and pumpkins.

The case against the Sou brothers of Aloun Farms collapsed Thursday as prosecutors asked U.S. Chief District Judge Susan Oki Mollway to drop all charges.

"We never mistreated anybody, period. We treated people well," said Alec Sou, surrounded by dozens of his smiling employees in a shady pavilion on the 3,200-acre Aloun Farms. "... We never believed we did anything wrong."

Prosecutors originally accused the Sous of economically entrapping the workers on the farm, housing them in dirty metal containers, threatening to deport them and making them work for little pay.

None of those allegations was validated during three days of testimony before the case was dismissed, said Thomas Bienert, an attorney for Alec Sou. The trial was expected to last about a month.

"The government just did not do their homework, and point by point, evidence from the people giving statements supported the Sous," said juror Brent Watanabe of Kaneohe.

Prosecutors abandoned the case because it couldn't meet its burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt, said Department of Justice spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa in a statement.

"Accordingly, in the interest of justice, the government dismissed the charges in this matter," the statement said.

The brothers were facing up to 20 years in prison without parole if they had been found guilty of the most serious charges. They went on trial last week after backing out of a plea deal last September that would have given them a five-year maximum sentence.

"I was glad it's over. My favorite thing to do is farming, work on the tractor and work with the people on the farm," said Mike Sou.

Prosecutors had argued that recruiting fees paid by the Thai workers — between $16,000 and $20,000 each — to land jobs on the Hawaii farm were the Sous' method of economically entrapping and manipulating the laborers.

If the workers complained of low pay or their living conditions, they were threatened with deportation, prosecutors said. Many mortgaged their homes and properties to pay the recruiting fees and feared they would lose them.

But prosecutors suffered a severe setback when lead prosecutor Susan French conceded she inaccurately stated to a grand jury that workers couldn't be charged recruiting fees when the laborers traveled to Hawaii in 2004. The law was changed in 2009 to prohibit recruiting fees.

French, a Washington, D.C.-based trial attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division, stepped down from the prosecution team shortly afterward because of unspecified health issues.

Bienert said the Sous were wrongly accused.

"I definitely will be asking for the Department of Justice to do a review of this case, and how they screwed this case up so badly," Bienert said.

The workers were promised a $9.60 an hour wage for three years, prosecutors wrote in a pretrial brief. But when the laborers arrived in Hawaii, they learned they would be paid much less, and their visas would only last for a few months.

Bienert argued the government ruined the business arrangement when it failed to renew the workers' guest worker visas after the first three months. He said the Sous weren't responsible for the government's failures, and the workers' pay was lower than they expected because of tax deductions.

Without valid visas to work in the United States, the workers couldn't earn enough money to repay the debts they incurred to travel to Hawaii, but Bienert said that wasn't the Sous' fault.

Prosecutors failed to effectively use testimony that recruitment fees paid by the Thai workers were used to buy their own plane tickets, said Clare Hanusz, an immigration attorney representing many of the Thai laborers. Federal guest worker rules require employers to pay for plane tickets.

"The government never really connected the dots to show that was the workers' money and that was illegal," Hanusz said.

Many of the Thai workers remain in Hawaii under special government visas granted to trafficking victims.

They'll continue to seek compensation in a civil lawsuit against the Sou brothers, Hanusz said.