Wrongfully imprisoned Hawaiian man freed after over 20 years behind bars

<span>Photograph: Marco Garcia/AP</span>
Photograph: Marco Garcia/AP

A native Hawaiian man who was wrongfully imprisoned for killing a white female tourist in 1991 has finally been freed after spending more than 20 years behind bars.

On Tuesday, Hawaii’s circuit court judge Peter Kubota ordered 51-year old Albert “Ian” Schweitzer to be “released from his shackles immediately” following additional evidence presented by Schweitzer’s attorneys in a new petition filed on Monday.

On 24 December 1991, 23-year-old Dana Ireland from Virginia was discovered in the bushes along a fishing trail in Puna, on the Big Island, naked from the waist down. Ireland was severely injured and her bicycle, which appeared to have been hit by a vehicle, was found mangled at an intersection a few miles away. She died from blood loss in hospital.

Her case garnered national attention, with intense public pressure on local police to find her killer.

In 1994, John Gonsalves, a man facing charges over his involvement in a cocaine conspiracy, told police that his half-brother, Frank Pauline Jr, was present during Ireland’s attack. Gonsalves and Pauline, who was himself in prison for sexual assault, blamed brothers Albert Ian Schweitzer and Shawn Schweitzer for attacking Ireland.

Police interrogated Pauline at least seven times over the subsequent two years, and each time he provided inconsistent statements. According to court documents, in 1996, two years before DNA testing was conducted in this matter, Pauline eventually admitted to police that he had been lying. He said Gonsalves had asked him for help in the Ireland case so that police would drop the drug charges against him. In 1997, despite a lack of evidence, the two Schweitzer brothers were indicted along with Pauline for the rape, kidnapping and murder of Ireland.

A year later, forensic testing revealed semen traces on Ireland’s body and her hospital gurney sheet that excluded the Schweitzer brothers and Pauline, and instead pointed to another, unknown man.

The indictments against the Schweitzer brothers were dismissed. But a few months later, a jailhouse informant claimed Ian Schweitzer had confessed to Ireland’s murder, and the brothers were indicted all over again.

Ian Schweitzer was convicted in 2000 and sentenced to 130 years in prison for second-degree murder, kidnapping and first-degree sexual assault. Shawn Schweitzer took a plea deal to manslaughter and kidnapping, and was sentenced to one year.

Pauline was also convicted of Ireland’s murder and was later killed in a New Mexico prison in 2015.

In Monday’s petition filed by attorneys with the Hawaii and New York Innocence Projects, new DNA evidence showed that a “Jimmy Z” brand shirt discovered near Ireland and soaked with her blood also contained sperm. According to the new evidence, the DNA and shirt belonged to the same unknown man whose DNA was discovered inside Ireland and on the hospital gurney sheet, contrary to prosecutors’ claims that the shirt belonged to Pauline.

“Unknown Male # 1 is the only individual whose DNA is recovered from all probative items of crime scene evidence. Albert Ian Schweitzer, Shawn Schweitzer, and Frank Pauline Jr are all excluded,” the petition said.

Moreover, new tire tread analysis revealed that Ian Schweitzer’s Volkswagen Beetle car did not produce the tire tracks found by Ireland’s body, nor the ones near the bicycle collision site. The petition also included a forensic odontologist’s conclusion that an injury found on Ireland’s left breast was not a bite mark, as previously argued.

In a statement to the Associated Press, Ian Schweitzer, who had been serving his sentence in Arizona, said that being back in Hawaii “tastes great” and that “the air is good … the water is good.” He also called the justice system “flawed” and was thankful for the judge for doing the “honorable thing”.

“Whenever you have a white, female victims … it gets a lot more attention than people of color and native Hawaiians,” Kenneth Lawson, co-director of the Hawaii Innocence Project to the Associated Press.

“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,” he added.

Meanwhile, last October, Shawn Schweitzer met with prosecutors and recanted his confession. He pleaded guilty because, according to the stipulation, his “parents did not want to risk losing another son and encouraged Shawn Schweitzer to do what he needed to do to come back home and not suffer the same fate as his brother”.

A polygraph test in November suggested he was being truthful when he denied involvement in Ireland’s murder, the petition said.