Hawaii prep school grad aims to avoid jail in bird killings

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Christian Gutierrez.

Christian Gutierrez. (Photo: AP)

HONOLULU (AP) — A college student who graduated from one of Hawaii's most prestigious high schools — former President Barack Obama's alma mater — is hoping to avoid jail time for slaughtering vulnerable seabirds at a nature reserve.

Prosecutors and wildlife conservationists are pushing for a year behind bars at Christian Gutierrez's sentencing Thursday, saying he deserves full punishment for the grisly killing of federally protected Laysan albatrosses.

In March, Gutierrez pleaded no contest to animal cruelty, theft and other charges. His defense attorney is asking the judge to postpone accepting the plea, which would allow Gutierrez to avoid a conviction if he stays out of trouble.

The charges come after Gutierrez and a group of buddies from the Honolulu prep school Punahou went camping in 2015 on the westernmost tip of the island of Oahu.

Prosecutors say they killed at least 15 Laysan albatrosses near the Kaena Point Natural Area Reserve by bludgeoning them with a bat and machete and shooting them with a pellet gun. The teens are accused of cutting off the birds' legs, tying the birds together and throwing them in the ocean. Nests and eggs were smashed.

Photos of tied-up birds were posted on social media.

The Laysan albatross is culturally significant to Native Hawaiians who consider them aumakua, or "revered ancestors and guardian spirits," prosecutors said in a sentencing memorandum, which called them "peaceful and trusting birds who do not recognize predators."

The killings "reflect a savagery and lack of conscience on the part of the perpetrators that cannot be excused by their age, upbringing or peer pressure," prosecutors wrote in the memo.

Gutierrez had to bear the brunt of public backlash that called for punishment of privileged teens because he was the only one charged who was 18 at the time, said his defense attorney, Myles Breiner. Two other cases are being handled confidentially in juvenile court, he said.

FILE- This Dec. 29, 2015, photo provided by the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources shows an albatross that had been killed on its nest with an egg at Kaena Point Natural Area Reserve on the westernmost point of Oahu in Hawaii. Christian Gutie
FILE- This Dec. 29, 2015, photo provided by the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources shows an albatross that had been killed on its nest with an egg at Kaena Point Natural Area Reserve on the westernmost point of Oahu in Hawaii. Christian Gutie
In this Dec. 28, 2016 photo provided by Pacific Rim Conservation, people photograph Laysan albatross at Kaena Point Natural Area Reserve on the westernmost point of Oahu in Hawaii. Christian Gutierrez, a New York University student who pleaded no contest
In this Dec. 28, 2016 photo provided by Pacific Rim Conservation, people photograph Laysan albatross at Kaena Point Natural Area Reserve on the westernmost point of Oahu in Hawaii. Christian Gutierrez, a New York University student who pleaded no contest

Gutierrez accepted responsibility, expressed remorse and sought mental health treatment, Breiner said.

In a sentencing memorandum, Breiner said Gutierrez was responsible for the deaths of two birds and said he didn't participate in the cutting and tying of birds. He wasn't the "architect" of the incident, didn't get the permit to camp and didn't bring any weapons, the defense attorney said.

Another teen kept stolen surveillance equipment and posted photos online, Breiner said.

Punahou School said it condemns the "senseless destruction" of the nesting area.

"The deplorable action contradicts the values our school promotes with students, among them respect for our community and the environment," the school said in a statement.

The public backlash is a mix of passionate environmentalists and attitudes toward the prestigious school in a state where the high school someone attends comes with preconceptions about their background, Breiner said.

"If this were a bunch of kids from Waianae or from Nanakuli High . you think anybody would care?" he said of public schools in poor communities. "But no, it's students from Punahou ... where all the leaders of our community graduated from.

"This is the only place I know of when you ask someone where you'd go to school, they don't say what university, they tell you what high school," the defense attorney said.

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