By JOHN BURNETT
Tribune-Herald staff writer
An overwhelming sense of anguish cast a pall over an almost-full Hilo courtroom as the mother of a 3-year-old girl who died Jan. 15 after being abused told her daughter’s killer that she still loved him.
Tasha Nihau-Lindsey, mother of the victim, Marley Makanani, fought through tears as she spoke directly to 38-year-old Ezekiel Wakinekona, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison for manslaughter and domestic abuse by 3rd Circuit Court Judge Ronald Ibarra.
“I loved you from the beginning, and I know this will be our end, and I’ll always just wonder why. Just why?” she said. “I don’t hate you. Everybody thinks I should. But I cannot hate you. Never. We have a past. You were like my big brother. I love you with all my heart. … I don’t know why she had to endure these things. I just hurt. … I want you to know that.”
“I love you, too,” Wakinekona replied.
Nihau-Lindsey is the cousin of Wakinekona’s wife, Kahealani, and is Wakinekona’s hanai sister. Makanani died two days after being found unconscious with labored breathing at Wakinekona’s Waimea home, where she was in the care of the Waikinekonas.
An autopsy determined that the toddler died of near drowning and traumatic head injury due to child abuse. At her husband’s preliminary hearing, Kahealani Wakinekona testified that he had been giving the girl a bath, left for an undetermined amount of time and returned to find the girl partially submerged in the water and making gurgling sounds.
Ezekiel Wakinekona pleaded guilty June 8 to manslaughter in the girl’s death and also to domestic abuse for injuries suffered by Makanani’s older sisters, Journey, then 6, and Taimani, then 2. The case was moved to Hilo from Kona due to security concerns at the Kona courthouse.
Deputy Prosecutor Shannon Kagawa told the court that even though Wakinekona pleaded guilty, he was “not fully accepting responsibility for his actions.” She pointed to statements attributed to Wakinekona in the pre-sentencing report, saying he “continued to blame these innocent children for these actions.”
“He indicates that because these children weren’t completely potty trained, or because they had bad behavior, that he needed to discipline them — and, in his words, old-school style,” she said. “… Journey, Taimani and Marley all suffered at the hands of the defendant.”
Wakinekona’s attorney, Rick Song, said that Wakinekona, a father of two teenagers, intended to be helpful when he agreed to take in Nihau-Lindsey’s daughters.
“I think the one thing that could be said is that there were good intentions, and unfortunately, he didn’t have the other skills and abilities to deal with the problems that were presented,” Song said.
Wakinekona asked Ibarra for a second chance and said he hoped the judge could “see the true man that I am.”
“By now, you’ve seen for yourself how … the media has made me look like a monster,” he said. “Words could never express how remorseful I am for this tragedy. I loved these girls with all my heart, and I miss them. I never meant for any of this to happen. I will live with this guilt for the rest of my life.”
Wakinekona said he tried to help Nihau-Lindsey, but instead “dug myself a hole.”
“I did not know what was wrong with these girls, but I learned real quick that they had too many problems for me to handle,” he said. “I needed help from my family, but none of my family wanted to help me. … We paid for her to be cremated — and that was hard on my ‘ohana — because I am the foundation of my ‘ohana.”
Ibarra said the real tragedy is that Makanani’s death “could have been prevented.”
“You could have stopped this,” the judge said. “When you asked for a second chance in this case, your actions do not deserve a second chance.”
“Considering your actions and hearing your explanations, I don’t really hear a sense of remorse from you,” he continued. “I hear explanations — and if you really feel remorseful, you would not have said what you did.”
Afterwards, Nihau-Lindsey said she would “try to keep positive” and “keep faith in the Lord.” She said the media portrayed her unfairly by reporting Kahealani Wakinekona’s testimony at the preliminary hearing that on Nov. 10 last year, Nihau-Lindsey “dropped them (the girls) off and never came back.”
“You guys had false accusations in there,” she said. “They said that I left them there, and I didn’t leave them there. He picked them up. I trusted him. I’ve known him my whole life; it’s just a brother-sister thing.”
Email John Burnett at email@example.com.