Myles Fukunaga’s funeral.
Myles Fukunaga’s funeral.

A Look Back on the Case That Rocked the AJA Community 90 Years Ago

Jonathan Y. Okamura
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

This year — Sept. 18, to be exact — marks 90 years since Myles Yutaka Fukunaga, a 19-year-old Nisei, killed Gill Jamieson, a 10-year-old Punahou student in Waikïkï. In a highly publicized case which some have referred to as “the most horrific murder in the history of Hawai‘i,” Fukunaga was arrested a short time later and convicted just weeks later. He was hanged for the crime on Nov. 19, 1929, at Oahu Prison after legal efforts led by the Hawaii Hochi to obtain a new trial for him all failed.

Why did Fukunaga kidnap and bludgeon to death an innocent haole boy, a brutal act of violence that all those who knew him found unbelievable given his responsible manner and quiet disposition? By all accounts, Fukunaga (Myles was his chosen “American” name) was the typical Japanese “good boy,” who had never been in trouble before and worked long hours at Queen’s Hospital to help his impoverished parents financially. As the chönan, or eldest son, with six younger siblings, he had to go to work rather than continue his education and dutifully gave $35 of his $40 monthly earnings to his parents. He spent the remaining $5 going to the movies and buying reading materials, his only pleasures in life. According to his former teachers and Fukunaga himself, he was a bright student who thoroughly enjoyed reading and took his education very seriously. Living in downtown Honolulu, Fukunaga could have easily attended McKinley High School, but the poverty of his family meant that was not to be. He referred to his inability to continue his education as “the biggest disappointment” of his life.

Murder victim Gill Jamieson. (Honolulu Star-Bulletin photo)
Murder victim Gill Jamieson. (Honolulu Star-Bulletin photo)

A partial explanation for Fukunaga’s crime is that Gill Jamieson’s father was a vice president of Hawaiian Trust Company, which managed the leasing of the house that the Fukunaga family rented. Following a heated argument with a rent collector regarding overdue rent of $20, Fukunaga developed what he described as a “hatred” for the company, which led him to select Gill Jamieson as his victim after learning that the boy’s father was a Hawaiian Trust executive. Fukunaga was arrested four days after kidnapping and killing the boy and collecting $4,000 in ransom money from the Jamiesons. He readily admitted his guilt to police. Fukunaga was quickly tried, convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to hang, all in just over two weeks after his capture.

A fuller explanation of why Myles Fukunaga killed Gill Jamieson is that he was insane, which was suspected even before he was caught, because of the strange ransom letter he sent to the Jamiesons. Before his trial, three court-appointed psychiatrists examined him and certified that he was legally sane, meaning he knew the difference between right and wrong when he killed Gill. However, in a lengthy study, University of Hawai‘i professor Lockwood Myrick Jr. concluded that Fukunaga was legally insane with a dissociated personality. Unfortunately, Myrick’s study was not completed until a month after Fukunaga’s trial had ended. Myrick argued that Fukunaga wasn’t just mentally insane — he was also legally insane because of being compelled by a force he could not withstand when he killed Gill. This force was his desire for revenge against Hawaiian Trust Company because of his contentious encounter with their rent collector, who had threatened to evict his family. According to the territorial Insanity Act of 1925, being driven by such a force was a criterion for legal insanity, besides the inability to differentiate between right and wrong. However, the psychiatrists who examined Fukunaga, the prosecutors and trial judge — and even his own defense attorneys — did not even consider compelling force as a factor in Fukunaga being legally insane.

Fukunaga’s own explanation for his crime, which he willingly revealed to police after his arrest, was that he wanted to collect ransom money and give it to his parents so they could return to their home village in Yamaguchi Prefecture. Due to their hard life in Hawai‘i, which began on a plantation on Kaua‘i, they often spoke to him of their desire to return to Yamaguchi, which was more of a dream given their impoverished situation and large family.

The second reason Fukunaga gave for killing Gill was that he wanted to die. He had failed in two earlier suicide attempts that year. By committing murder, he expected to be hanged. He wanted to end his life because he was extremely unhappy working long hours at tedious jobs with no prospects for improving his employment situation. And, he was greatly disappointed that he could not further his education. He was also so lonely without companions that he referred to the books he spent his free time reading as his “only friends.”

Although Myrick claimed Fukunaga was unaware of his desire for revenge, the third reason Fukunaga gave for killing Gill was because he wanted vengeance against Hawaiian Trust Company. As Fukunaga bitterly told police, “We had so many troubles, and it came to a climax when the collector came and demanded money right away. A rich company like that could not wait for just a mere $20 sum.”

Regarding his possible insanity, without being asked, Fukunaga insisted during his police interrogation, “I hope you are getting this. I am not crazy. I am sane as ever.” However, his insistence could have been because he feared he was insane and thus would not be executed for his crime.

Besides discussing the above issues concerning Fukunaga’s motives and his possible insanity my forthcoming book, “Raced to Death in 1920s Hawai‘i: Injustice and Revenge in the Fukunaga Case,” I focus on the larger racial significance of the case. The Fukunaga incident reveals much about how race operated in Hawai‘i before World War II, especially in enforcing the unequal relations between haoles and non-haoles, particularly Japanese Americans. I contend that the primary reason Fukunaga was hanged was because, in the language of that time, he was of the “Japanese race.”

The 1920s was the height of the anti-Japanese movement led by the sugar planters, government officials and the U.S. military, all seeking to subordinate Japanese Americans because they considered them the most dangerous threat to continued haole domination of Hawai‘i. Instead of an individual act, haoles viewed Fukunaga’s killing of Gill as a heinous murder by a Japanese American who challenged their oligarchical rule. Thus for them, he had to suffer the ultimate penalty under the law because he had brazenly killed one of their own from a prominent family.

I also argue that Fukunaga was “raced,” or rushed, to his death sentence because haoles, desiring immediate revenge for Gill’s murder, wanted him found guilty and hanged as quickly as possible. This overriding objective accounts for the speed with which Fukunaga’s trial was started and concluded, resulting in him being convicted and sentenced to death less than three weeks after his crime. For Fukunaga, justice delayed would not necessarily have meant justice denied. A delay in the start of his trial would have meant that he could have a 10-day psychiatric examination instead of the 90-minute exam he was given. A delay also would have given his attorneys more time to prepare their defense rather than just six days. Lastly, a delay would have given Lockwood Myrick Jr. more time to complete his study of Fukunaga’s insanity, which then could have been presented at the trial. Fukunaga’s execution was scheduled for shortly after his trial, but legal appeals of his conviction delayed his hanging for just over a year. If not for the appeals, of the 42 death penalty cases brought to trial during the territorial period, Fukunaga’s case would have been the fastest acted upon from commission of the murder to execution.

Myles Fukunaga’s accelerated death sentence can be attributed to blatant racial injustice throughout his case. That injustice began even before Fukunaga was arrested. The Jamiesons’ former chauffer, a young Japanese man named Harry Kaisan, was beaten by police while attempting to force a confession from him. Among the most egregious examples of racial injustice perpetrated against Fukunaga was the 90-minute psychiatric examination he was given instead of the evaluation over a 10-day period, as was required by Hawai‘i law. That would have delayed the start of his trial and possibly uncovered evidence of Fukunaga’s insanity.

During jury selection, the majority of jurors that convicted him stated under oath that they had already formed an opinion of Fukunaga’s guilt or innocence. Still, they claimed they could set it aside and give him a fair trial. Given the widespread newspaper coverage of Fukunaga’s admission that he had killed Gill, it is extremely unlikely the jurors believed he was innocent. However, those prospective jurors were not challenged by Fukunaga’s court-appointed attorneys in an attempt to exclude them from the jury — his attorneys were not going to question their fellow haoles about whether they were really telling the truth while under oath.

Racial injustice continued on the first day of the two-day trial when Fukunaga’s attorneys committed a huge blunder by stipulating that he killed Gill, but offered no insanity or other defense to exonerate him. Furthermore, their defense of Fukunaga lasted all of 19 minutes — and they called no witnesses on his behalf who could have testified that the vicious murder was totally inconsistent with his timid character. Fukunaga’s attorneys did not even bother to cross-examine most of the prosecution witnesses, which moved the trial along quickly toward the jury’s guilty verdict and the death penalty sentence by the second day.

The Japanese American community responded promptly to Fukunaga’s death sentence, expressing their strong opposition. The effort was led by Fred Kinzaburo Makino, the hapa-haole founder and publisher of the Hawaii Hochi. Comparing Fukunaga’s death sentence with the non-capital punishment given to haole convicted murderers, Makino declared that Fukunaga’s sentence demonstrated that there were “two kinds of justice” in Hawai‘i — one for haoles and the other for Japanese Americans.

Makino and the Hawaii Hochi organized a campaign within the Japanese American community to have Fukunaga given a full psychiatric examination and to be given a new trial for the crime. Shortly after he was sentenced to be hanged, Makino asked Robert Murakami, one of only two Nisei attorneys in Hawai‘i, to represent Fukunaga and to file appeals of his conviction, starting with the territorial Supreme Court. The Hawaii Hochi also raised about $7,000 for Fukunaga’s defense from contributions from the Japanese American community. Challenging the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, the Honolulu Advertiser and the Hochi’s rival Japanese-language newspaper, Nippu Jiji, in its many editorials and news articles about the case, the Hawaii Hochi consistently questioned the legality of Fukunaga’s conviction and psychiatric exam.

The Japanese American community supported the efforts to obtain justice for Fukunaga. They understood that his speedy death sentence was directed at them as a community and that haoles viewed Japanese Americans as the greatest political and economic threat to their continued rule.

After the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Fukunaga’s last legal appeal in October 1929, Japanese American community leaders, organizations and a thousand mothers signed and sent several petitions to Gov. Lawrence Judd. They all requested that he commute Fukunaga’s death sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Gov. Judd refused their request.

Several days after Fukunaga was hanged, some 6,000 Japanese Americans attended an outdoor gathering at Chuo Gakuin Japanese language school on Nu‘uanu Avenue. Although it had been organized by the Hawaii Hochi to give its final report on the campaign to save Fukunaga’s life, it could also be interpreted as a public protest of his execution. The latter had transformed Fukunaga into a martyr for racial justice among Japanese Americans.

In my book’s conclusion, I compare the Fukunaga incident with the better-known 1931 Massie case in which Joe Kahahawai, along with four friends, two of them Japanese Americans, was falsely accused of raping a young haole woman, Thalia Massie. Like Fukunaga, Kahahawai, a Native Hawaiian who was racialized as black by his Southern white accusers, was similarly raced to death insofar as he was kidnapped and shot to death by Massie’s husband, mother and two Navy sailors. Rather than first-degree murder, they were convicted of manslaughter, but had their 10-year sentences at hard labor commuted to one hour by Gov. Judd, who had refused to reduce Fukunaga’s death sentence to life in prison without parole.

Ninety years have passed since Myles Fukunaga was unjustly convicted of murder and hanged, but we should still remember the tragedy of his short life and what happened to him. Although he killed Gill Jamieson, serious legal questions can be raised about his sanity at the time and thus his responsibility for committing murder. From this perspective of injustice, his execution and the murder of Joe Kahahawai can be understood as unwilling sacrifices they were both forced to make so that racial justice and equality could eventually prevail in Hawai‘i.

Jonathan Y. Okamura is a professor in the Department of Ethnic Studies at the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa. Besides “Raced to Death in 1920s Hawai‘i: Injustice and Revenge in the Fukunaga Case,” to be published next year by the University of Illinois Press, Okamura is also the author of “From Race to Ethnicity: Interpreting Japanese American Experiences in Hawai‘i,” published in 2014, and “Ethnicity and Inequality in Hawai‘i,” published in 2008.


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