A native Hawaiian man has been released from a 130-year prison sentence after his lawyers presented new evidence in his case.
Albert ‘Ian’ Schweitzer had already served 25 years for the 1991 murder, kidnapping and sexual assault of a woman visiting Hawaii when Judge Peter Kubota made the ruling on Tuesday.
Kubota said Schweitzer should be “released from his shackles immediately” during the hearing in a court in the town of Hilo on Hawaii’s largest island.
The statement was met with applause from those supporting Schweitzer, who had been flown to the Big Island for the hearing from the Arizona prison where he was serving his sentence.
“My feelings were all over the place,” Schweitzer told the Associated Press news agency during a phone interview. “Nerves, anxiety, scared.”
He added that the justice system is “flawed”.
The release is the latest turn in a case that captured national attention.
Lawyers have long maintained that shifting accounts from supposed eyewitnesses and subsequent recantations warranted the revisiting of the conviction. They argued that the family of 24-year-old Dana Ireland was being denied justice in the case, with her killer likely still at large.
However, it wasn’t until a petition was filed late Monday outlining additional evidence in the case that Schweitzer was finally released. The petition included new DNA linking a shirt that was found at the scene and that was soaked with Ireland’s blood to an unknown man whose DNA had already been found at the scene.
A new tyre tread analysis also concluded that Schweitzer’s Volkswagen Beetle car did not leave the tyre marks at either location where Ireland and her bicycle were found.
BREAKING NEWS: Ian Schweitzer was just exonerated of murder after 25 years in prison. New DNA evidence identifies one unknown male perpetrator, proving Mr. Schweitzer and his co-defendants’ innocence. @HawaiiInnocence
— The Innocence Project (@innocence) January 25, 2023
Kenneth Lawson, co-director of the Hawaii Innocence Project, said the national attention that the brutal killing garnered heaped pressure on police. That pressure grew as the case went unsolved for years.
“Whenever you have a white, female victim … it gets a lot more attention than people of colour and Native Hawaiians,” said Lawson.
“The parents, understandably, were becoming more and more infuriated … There was insurmountable pressure to solve this case. And when that happens, mistakes are made, some intentional and some unintentional.”
‘Conviction integrity agreement’
Ireland was found barely alive in the bushes along a fishing trail in Puna, a remote section of the Big Island, on Christmas Eve in 1991. She had been sexually assaulted and beaten, and later died at Hilo Medical Center. The mangled bicycle she had been riding was found several miles away and appeared to have been run into by a vehicle.
From the beginning of the trial, defence attorneys have pointed to the lack of DNA evidence linking Schweitzer and the two other native Hawaiian men convicted in connection with the killing.
Prosecutors instead relied on what they believed to be a major breakthrough. That came in 1994, when a man facing charges for his role in a cocaine conspiracy contacted police and claimed his half brother, Frank Pauline Jr, witnessed Ireland’s attack, according to court documents.
Police then interviewed Pauline, who was in his third month of a 10-year sentence for an unrelated sex assault and theft.
Pauline, in turn, claimed brothers Ian and Shawn Schweitzer attacked and killed Ireland. During repeated interviews, in which Pauline gave inconsistent accounts, police said he also incriminated himself in the killing.
Both Pauline and Shawn Schweitzer, who took a plea deal in the case, have since recanted their accounts. Pauline was killed in a New Mexico prison by a fellow inmate in 2015.
The Innocence Project also criticised the prosecutors’ reliance on a prison informant who claimed Ian Schweitzer had confessed to him. The informant was offered a more lenient sentence in exchange for his cooperation.
“The promise or expectation of receiving leniency or other benefits in exchange for testimony creates a strong incentive for witnesses to lie,” the Innocence Project said in a statement on Wednesday. The organisation noted that jailhouse informant testimony played a role in nearly 20 percent of the 241 exonerations it has spearheaded.
In 2019, Schweitzer’s attorneys and Hawaii County prosecutors entered into a “conviction integrity agreement” to reinvestigate the case.
Such agreements have been increasingly used to reexamine questionable convictions and guard against future errors, with district attorneys’ offices across the United States creating special units to handle the cases.
The reinvestigation represented the first time such an agreement was used in Hawaii, according to the Innocence Project’s Lawson.