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Shock, Heartache After News of Deputy Prosecutor’s Death

January 22, 2021, 6:00 AM HST
* Updated January 22, 12:04 AM
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Sheri Lawson (PC: Beth Lawson)

Deputy Prosecutor Kauanoe Jackson said she never felt stronger in a courtroom than when she was standing next to her colleague and friend, Sheri Lawson.

“To see this 5-foot, courageous woman fight judges and attorneys was empowering,” said Jackson, who worked alongside Lawson for several years.

Lawson, a Hawai‘i County deputy prosecutor for almost 10 years, died Jan. 13 after battling a rare form of ovarian cancer for nearly five years. The news of her death left many shocked and riddled with heartache.

She was 44 years old.

“With her passing, the county has lost someone who (was) truly advocating on their behalf,” said former deputy prosecuting attorney and friend Kim Taniyama. “What we lost was a person who truly wanted everyone to be their best.”

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Lawson took on some of the most challenging cases. From murders to various violent assaults to prosecuting law enforcement, Lawson’s sibling Beth told Big Island Now her sister never shirked from a tough case.

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“She’d come home every night exhausted — she just kept going,” Beth said. “Sheri didn’t want to die. She fought it to the bitter end.”

Beth added that her sister knew from the beginning that fighting her disease was going to be hard because there wasn’t a treatment for it. But fight she did, and she never let it stop her from doing what she loved.

“I knew she was strong, but she had strength that I didn’t know a person could have,” Beth said.

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Beth, with the help of other family members, helped Lawson through her illness. They were all with her the night she passed.

“It’s always been Sheri and Beth,” Beth said. “We never thought of ourselves as separate. She wasn’t just my sister and best friend. It was deeper…I don’t know how to put it into words.”

“I see her strength daily in my kids and my nieces,” she added. “She was a wonderful, caring and kind person. Emulating those characteristics is important to me.”

A True Advocate

Sheri Lawson with her dog Sadie. (PC: Beth Lawson)

Lawson’s passion for advocating for justice extended beyond the courtroom. She cared about the victims and families.

Lawson was the prosecutor in the assault of John Kanui, the security guard at Seaside Motel beaten by two men and a woman in September 2018. The three suspects in the case were found guilty after a weeks-long trial. Two of them are serving life sentences and the third was sentenced to 10 years incarceration.

“She was amazing,” Jennifer Farrell, Kanui’s daughter, said. “She really helped us get the justice my dad deserved.”

Kanui succumbed to his injuries and died last September.

“She was strong when we were struggling,” Farrell said. “Just her passion for her job was incredible.”

Farrell said she was glad Lawson was on their side, “because I would be afraid of her.”

“She’s so empowering,” Farrell added. “You wouldn’t think all this energy would come from a petite little thing. She was a force.”

Farrell offered her condolences to the Lawson family.

“She poured her heart into our case,” Farrell said. “I told her before I’ll be forever grateful.”

Lawson helped a victim identified publicly only as “Heather” get justice after she was sexually assaulted by two teenage boys at Old Kona Airport Park in 2016. Her full name is not being published to protect her identity.

On Thursday, Heather described Lawson as incredible, unwavering and a force to be reckoned with.

“She really looked out for me,” Heather said. “Her strength really gave me strength. She really made me have faith in the court process.”

The two teens pleaded guilty and are now serving prison sentences. After the cases ended, Heather said, Lawson kept in touch.

“She was a good role model for me,” Heather said. “I have no doubt that she has paid it forward in her life. She should be resting well now, resting in peace.”

An Inspiration to Her Peers

Beth said she knew her sister had an impact on people prior to her passing but had not realized how many until her death.

“That has brought me so much comfort knowing that in her relatively short life she had such an impact,” Beth said.

Jackson worked most of her trials with Lawson. As colleagues, she said, they constantly challenged each other to do more.

“We were OK with disagreements — we knew our work was our work. We could still laugh about it,” she said.

Jackson said Lawson never wanted to use her illness as an excuse. During the six-week murder trial of two brothers accused of killing their landlord, she would fly to O‘ahu periodically to undergo chemotherapy. She would return to court the next day to present her arguments and question witnesses before a judge and jury.

“She was never going to let the world see she was ill,” Jackson said. “She was brilliant and brave.”

While Lawson was a tenacious advocate, she was also intelligent, insightful and creative with her work, Taniyama said.

“When faced with challenging facts or adverse arguments, she would dive in, study the law, tease through the various nuances in the law to craft a compelling case,” Taniyama explained. “She often offered arguments that were novel, yet well-grounded in law.”

First Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Stephen Frye said Lawson had an undeniable dedication to the pursuit of justice and tirelessly worked to make the community a better and safer place.

“Going above and beyond the call of duty was Sheri’s preferred work ethic,” Frye said in a statement. “She not only refused to back down from any challenge but proactively sought out the most difficult assignments available. Honesty, integrity and diligence were what she embodied and what she expected in return from those she came in contact with. She was a tremendous asset to the Office of the Prosecuting Attorney. In addition to being a great attorney, she was a tremendous friend that brought joy into many of our lives. She loved to laugh, which was a trait that never left her. She will be dearly missed.”

Hawai‘i County Prosecutor Kelden Waltjen said he had the privilege of working with Lawson for eight years. She was not only a colleague but a good friend.

“She was a public servant who stood up for victims and for those who could not stand up for themselves,” Waltjen stated. “Sheri never backed down from a fight, instead she rose up to all challenges and encouraged others to do the same. She left a positive impact on the lives of so many people in our community and set a very high standard for what we should expect from our prosecutors.”

Third Circuit Court Judge Wendy DeWeese went head-to-head with Lawson on several cases when she was employed as a public defender.

“What was really special about Sheri was how she always fought for what she thought was right and would always be so professional,” DeWeese said. “Her professional work and my professional work never got in the way of the friendship we maintained outside of the courtroom. A lot of people can’t do that.”

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