WAILUKU - For what a judge called an attempt to use a man as "human kindling," a defendant was sentenced Wednesday to a one-year jail term in the robbery of a man who was punched, kicked, beaten with baseball bats and doused with gasoline at a Honokowai apartment complex last year.
Noah Thomas-Francis, 35, of Pukalani also was placed on five years' probation and ordered to perform 300 hours of community service as part of his sentence.
In deciding on the sentence of probation instead of a 10-year prison term, 2nd Circuit Judge Rhonda Loo said she weighed the good described in letters by Thomas-Francis' family and friends against the "extreme kind of cruelty" in his actions during the attack on Andy Burkhart at about 9:15 p.m. March 21, 2013, at the Maui Sands complex on Lower Honoapiilani Road.
"You basically tried to turn him into human kindling," Loo told Thomas-Francis. "Thank goodness these matches did not light that night."
During a trial this year for co-defendant Brok Carlton, 32-year-old Burkhart testified he had left his second-floor unit and was going to pick up his girlfriend from her job when he saw Carlton coming up the stairs, with Thomas-Francis behind him.
Carlton lunged at Burkhart before he punched Carlton in the face, then grabbed him in a chokehold, Burkhart said. He was moving back toward his apartment, using Carlton's body as a shield from Thomas-Francis, when Burkhart said he was struck from behind by two men with baseball bats.
Burkhart said Carlton tried to use zip-ties to bind Burkhart's hands and feet, and Thomas-Francis poured gasoline on Burkhart. The attackers tried to light a match, Burkhart said, before running away as police sirens neared.
Thomas-Francis took the keys to Burkhart's BMW and left with Carlton in the vehicle, according to trial testimony.
Burkhart described being kicked in the head by Carlton and Thomas-Francis, who was wearing boots.
Thomas-Francis said that if Burkhart didn't pay back the money, "this is going to keep happening to me," Burkhart testified.
He said Thomas-Francis was referring to $100,000 that had been reported stolen from a safe in Carlton's house in Kihei, where Burkhart had been living. He was working for Carlton, who had an air conditioning and refrigeration business.
Thomas-Francis had been scheduled to go on trial with Carlton, who was found guilty as charged of kidnapping, first-degree robbery, second-degree assault and unauthorized control of a propelled vehicle. But shortly before the trial began, Thomas-Francis pleaded no contest to a reduced charge of second-degree robbery.
In court Wednesday, Thomas-Francis asked for leniency and a chance to keep the conviction off his record.
"I'm extremely sorry for my actions and my decisions - my bad, stupid, terrible decisions," he said. "It was humiliating for me and for my family as well, to be seen at my worst moment."
Thomas-Francis said he has been sober for 13 months, the longest period in his adult life.
Defense attorney Ben Herren said Thomas-Francis has no prior criminal history and was "extremely intoxicated" that night.
Since being released on $175,000 bail soon after his arrest, Thomas-Francis has attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings four to five times a week and gone to regular counseling, Herren said.
He said Thomas-Francis has a landscaping business, employing some family members, and he also provides financial support for his sister and her three children.
"He's always been a peaceful person who's dealt with confrontation and conflicts in a peaceful way," Herren said. "He's gone out of his way to help people, as opposed to hurt them."
More than a dozen people were in the courtroom gallery to show support for Thomas-Francis, Herren said.
He said Thomas-Francis didn't pour gasoline on Burkhart or try to set him on fire, as Burkhart testified. A statement Burkhart gave to a police officer that night attributed those actions to others involved, contradicting his trial testimony, Herren said.
Deputy Prosecutor Emlyn Higa, who had argued for the 10-year prison term for Thomas-Francis, said police reported difficulty in initially getting information from Burkhart because of his emotional state at the time.
Burkhart "expressed befuddlement" over Thomas-Francis' involvement, Higa said.
"He couldn't understand why Noah was involved in this and why he did the things he did," Higa said.
"But this wasn't something that was a moment's mistake," Higa said. "This was an event that took planning and preparation."
In a letter read in court, Burkhart said he had moved to Florida because while he remained on Maui, "I had to remember the fact that two of the four guys that participated were still out there, knowing where I lived and what I drove."
Burkhart said Thomas-Francis had chances to tell police about the other men involved but didn't.
"You and Brok changed my entire life, and it wasn't in a good way," Burkhart said in the letter. "I forgive your part in the events that took place that night, but I will never forget."
Judge Loo said she also couldn't understand why Thomas-Francis got involved that night.
"Are you that much of a follower?" Loo said. "You do all these nice things and yet why would you act as you did?
"I don't know whether it was the alcohol working that night or some kind of big-body thing going on with the boys."
She said Thomas-Francis had described being scared when he was in a fire when he was young, yet he became involved in the attempt to set fire to someone who thought of Thomas-Francis as a friend.
At the time, Thomas-Francis reported drinking alcohol daily and having had 15 to 20 drinks in his system the night he went with Carlton to Honokowai, Loo said.
"I am extremely concerned as drunk as you were, you went along for the ride," she told Thomas-Francis.
Loo denied Thomas-Francis' request for a chance to keep the conviction off his record.
He was ordered to pay $1,843 in restitution.
Higa said he would seek consecutive prison terms totaling 50 years for Carlton when he is sentenced June 6. Carlton, 40, has been held without bail at the Maui Community Correctional Center since his convictions.
* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.