January 27, 2023

A native Hawaiian has been released from a 130-year sentence after his attorneys 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 returned the verdict Tuesday.

Kubota said Schweitzer should be “immediately released from his bonds” during the hearing in a court in the city of Hilo on Hawaii’s largest island.

The statement was met with applause from supporters of Schweitzer, who was flown to the Big Island for a hearing from the Arizona prison where he was serving his sentence.

“My feelings were everywhere,” Schweitzer told the Associated Press in a phone interview. “Nerves, fear, fear.”

He added that the justice system was “flawed”.

The release is the latest twist in a case that has garnered national attention.

Lawyers have long argued that the postponement of reports by alleged eyewitnesses and subsequent retractions warranted a sentencing review. They argued that justice was being denied to the family of 24-year-old Dana Ireland in the case and that her killer is likely still at large.

But it wasn’t until a petition was filed late Monday setting out additional evidence in the case that Schweitzer was finally released. The petition contained new DNA linking a shirt found at the scene and soaked in Ireland’s blood to an unknown man whose DNA had already been found at the scene.

A new tire tread analysis also concluded that Schweitzer’s Volkswagen Beetle left no tire tracks at either location where Ireland and her bike were found.

Kenneth Lawson, co-director of the Hawaii Innocence Project, said the national attention the brutal murder drew put enormous pressure on police. That pressure grew as the case went unsolved for years.

“Whenever you have a white female victim … she gets a lot more attention than people of color and native Hawaiians,” Lawson said.

“The parents, understandably, grew increasingly angry… There was an 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 on Christmas Eve 1991 in Puna, a remote part of the Big Island. She had been sexually assaulted and beaten and later died at Hilo Medical Center. The mangled bicycle she was riding was found several kilometers away and appeared to have been hit by a vehicle.

From the beginning of the trial, defense attorneys have pointed to the lack of DNA evidence linking Schweitzer and the two other Hawaiian natives convicted in connection with the murder.

Prosecutors instead relied on what they believed to be a major breakthrough. That happened in 1994, when a man accused of his role in a cocaine conspiracy contacted police, claiming his half-brother Frank Pauline Jr. witnessed the Irish attack, according to court documents.

Police then questioned Pauline, who was serving the third month of a 10-year sentence on unrelated sexual assault and theft charges.

Pauline, in turn, claimed that brothers Ian and Shawn Schweitzer attacked and killed Ireland. In repeated interviews, in which Pauline gave conflicting accounts, police said he also incriminated himself for the murder.

Both Pauline and Shawn Schweitzer, who struck plea deals in the case, have since revoked their accounts. Pauline was killed by a fellow inmate in a New Mexico prison in 2015.

The Innocence Project also criticized prosecutors’ reliance on a prison whistleblower who claimed Ian Schweitzer faced him. The whistleblower was offered a lighter sentence in exchange for his cooperation.

“The promise or expectation of leniency or other benefits in exchange for testimony creates a strong incentive for witnesses to lie,” the Innocence Project said in a statement Wednesday. The organization found that prisoner testimony played a role in almost 20 percent of the 241 exonerations it cited.

In 2019, Schweitzer’s attorneys and Hawaii County prosecutors entered into a “conviction integrity agreement” to re-examine the case.

Such agreements are increasingly being used to review questionable convictions and prevent future errors, with prosecutors in the United States establishing special units to handle cases.

According to Lawson of the Innocence Project, the re-examination marked the first time such an arrangement had been used in Hawaii.

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