After a 23-year-old Virginia woman was raped and murdered while riding a bicycle in a remote part of Hawaii in 1991, police came under intense pressure to solve the case.
A campaign to collect reward money and extensive news coverage eventually led to growing frustration and a special prosecutor was called in to take over the investigation, as the murder remained unsolved for years. Authorities charged three men in 1997, all of whom were convicted.
One was killed in prison. One was released after reaching a plea bargain. The third, Albert Schweitzer, whose middle name is Ian, maintained his innocence.
On Tuesday, a judge in Hawaii vacated Schweitzer’s convictions in the case and ordered his release after serving 23 years in prison, pointing to newly discovered DNA evidence that suggested an unknown man may have been responsible for the crime.
“Mr. Schweitzer will be released from his shackles immediately,” Judge Peter K. Kubota said to applause in the Hilo courtroom.
Schweitzer, 51, had been serving a 130-year sentence since he was convicted in 2000 of kidnapping, sexually assaulting and murdering the woman, Dana Ireland. He was released 24 years after opening arguments began in his trial on January 24, 2000.
In an interview on Wednesday, Mr Schweitzer, who was 20 when Ms Ireland was killed, said he had kept hope by “just keeping the right mindset and believing and trusting and praying hard, praying hard. ”
“I knew he was innocent,” he said. “Easy to say, but, man, when you’re really innocent, that’s all that really happens. There’s not much to say about it except that I’m innocent. I’m innocent.”
Judge Kubota said the fear and outrage sparked by cases like Ms Ireland’s “can cause a firestorm” that is difficult for “the cold hand of justice” to quell.
The new evidence presented in Mr. Schweitzer’s case, he said, “proves conclusively that, in a new trial, a jury would likely reach a different verdict of acquittal.”
The fact that Ms. Ireland was white and Mr. Schweitzer is part Hawaiian fueled media interest in the investigation and put additional pressure on authorities for convictions, said Kenneth L. Lawson, co-director of the Hawaii Innocence Project, which Mr. Schweitzer represented along with the Innocence Project.
“It took on a life of its own to the point where the island believed these guys had done it and nobody wanted to hear the evidence,” Lawson said in an interview Wednesday. “Everyone wanted to catch the bad guys.”
Ms. Ireland was found on Christmas Eve 1991, badly injured in the bushes on a fishing trail in the Puna district of the island of Hawaii, several miles from where her mangled bicycle was found. She died early the next morning. Investigators concluded that a driver had struck her while she was bicycling and that she had been sexually assaulted and left to die.
Efforts to find a suspect were unsuccessful until 1994, when investigators spoke with Frank Pauline Jr., who was in prison for an unrelated sexual assault, Schweitzer’s attorneys said.
Pauline’s account changed when she gave police a series of statements over two years, prosecutors said. But she eventually told investigators that she had been in a car with Schweitzer and her younger brother, Shawn Schweitzer, when they arrived in Ireland on her bike and sexually assaulted her, lawyers for Ian Schweitzer said. .
Mr. Pauline recanted his testimony in 1996, but he and the Schweitzer brothers were still indicted in 1997 on charges of murder, kidnapping, and sexual assault.
The following year, DNA tests indicated that neither Mr. Pauline nor any of the Schweitzer siblings were the source of the sperm recovered from Ms. Ireland’s body and from a sheet on a hospital gurney, lawyers for Mr. Schweitzer.
However, Mr. Pauline was convicted in 1999 and sentenced to life in prison. He was murdered in a New Mexico prison in 2015.
Ian Schweitzer was convicted in 2000 after a jailhouse informant implicated him along with his brother and Pauline in the murder of Ms Ireland, Schweitzer’s lawyers said.
Prosecutors also attempted to link the three men to a T-shirt soaked in Ms Ireland’s blood that was found near her body. Prosecutors presented testimony that the shirt belonged to Mr. Pauline.
Shawn Schweitzer agreed to plead guilty in 2000 to manslaughter and kidnapping charges, according to court documents. He was sentenced to one year in jail with credit for the time served and five years of probation.
He later retracted his confession, explaining that he had agreed to plead guilty only because he had seen his brother, who had also claimed his innocence, be convicted and sentenced to life in prison, according to court documents.
In 2019, prosecutors agreed to reinvestigate Ms Ireland’s murder with Mr Schweitzer’s lawyers.
The attorneys presented test results indicating that the Schweitzer siblings and Mr. Pauline were not the sources of the DNA found in key tests, including skin and sperm from the bloody T-shirt and sperm recovered from the body and hospital in Mrs. Ireland. stretcher sheet, according to court documents.
Instead, the DNA pointed to an unidentified man, whom court documents refer to as “unknown man number 1,” Schweitzer’s lawyers said.
The lawyers also submitted new analyzes of an injury to Ms. Ireland’s body and of tire marks left where Ms. Ireland was struck and where her body was found. They said those analyzes undermined the prosecutors’ case.
Barry C. Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project, said in an interview Wednesday that the new evidence highlighted “the danger of jailhouse informant witnesses,” who are often incentivized to offer incriminating testimony.
Despite participating in the investigation of the case, Hawaii County prosecutors asked the judge not to overturn Mr. Schweitzer’s conviction. A prosecutor argued in court that the new DNA evidence did not “rise to the level that would likely change the outcome of the trial.”
“No matter the outcome of these post-conviction proceedings,” prosecutors said in a statement Tuesday, “we remain committed to identifying Unknown Male #1 and seeking justice for Dana Ireland and her ohana,” a Hawaiian word. for family.
Ms Ireland’s family could not be reached for comment, and prosecutors did not respond to emails asking if they had spoken with Ireland’s family.
“Dana is the real victim,” said Ian Schweitzer. “And God bless her, God bless her family. I hope her family can really see the truth. She was always in my prayers.”
Alain Delaquériere contributed research.