HONOLULU (AP) — A petition filed Monday outlining new evidence in one of Hawaii's biggest murder cases asks a judge to release a Native Hawaiian man who has spent more than 20 years in prison for the sexual assault, kidnapping and murder of a white woman on the Big Island.
On Christmas Eve in 1991, Dana Ireland, 23, was found barely alive in the bushes along a fishing trail in Puna, a remote Big Island district. She was sexually assaulted and beaten, and later died at Hilo hospital. The mangled bicycle she had been riding was found several miles away and it appeared a vehicle ran into her.
The murder of the blond-haired, blue-eyed visitor from Virginia gained national attention and remained unsolved for years, putting intense pressure on police to find the killer.
“Whenever you have a white, female victim ... it gets a lot more attention than people of color and Native Hawaiians,” said Kenneth Lawson, co-director of the Hawaii Innocence Project. “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.”
With help from the Innocence Project in New York, who are co-counsel, Lawson's group is representing Albert “Ian” Schweitzer, the last of three Native Hawaiian men convicted in Ireland's death to remain imprisoned.
It was previously known that DNA evidence in the case belonged to an unknown man and that all three of the convicted men were excluded as the source. But what's new, according to the petition, is that a “Jimmy Z” brand T-shirt found near Ireland and soaked with her blood belonged to the same unknown man — and not to one of the three men as prosecutors claimed.
Additionally, the petition said, a new tire tread analysis concluded that Schweitzer's Volkswagen Beetle car didn't leave the tire marks at either location where Ireland and her bicycle were found. And a forensic odontologist concluded that an injury on her left breast wasn't a bitemark as previously believed, the petition said.
“At a new trial today, a jury would not convict Mr. Schweitzer of Ms. Ireland’s sexual assault and murder,” the petition said. “In fact, a prosecutor would likely not even arrest Mr. Schweitzer for this crime.”
The likelihood that all three men participated in a sexual attack and left no trace of biological evidence — even none uncovered with advanced forensic testing — is “extraordinarily improbable,” the petition said.
At a hearing Tuesday, a judge will consider the defense's request to vacate Schweitzer's sentence and release him.
Ireland's relatives couldn't immediately be reached for comment on the petition.
In 2019, Schweitzer's attorneys and Hawaii County prosecutors entered into a “conviction integrity agreement” to reinvestigate the case. It was the first time in Hawaii there's been this type of agreement, Lawson said, which is increasingly being used to reexamine questionable convictions and guard against future errors.
Much of the background on the Ireland case is detailed in a document filed with the petition listing facts that defense attorneys and prosecutors have stipulated.
In 1994, police made what they believed to be a major breakthrough. A man facing charges for his role in a cocaine conspiracy had contacted police and claimed that his half-brother, Frank Pauline Jr., witnessed Ireland's attack, according to the stipulated facts document.
Police interviewed Pauline, who was in his third month of a 10-year sentence for an unrelated sex assault and theft. He claimed that brothers Ian and Shawn Schweitzer had attacked and killed Ireland. But he was interviewed at least seven times and gave inconsistent accounts each time — eventually incriminating himself, the stipulation document said.
Despite the lack of evidence linking them to the killing, the two Schweitzers and Pauline were indicted in 1997.
At one point the charges were dismissed because all three men were excluded as the source of semen found in Ireland and on a hospital gurney sheet — but they were indicted again after another informant claimed that Ian Schweitzer confessed to him in jail that Pauline raped and killed Ireland.
Pauline later said he offered details to police about the Ireland murder in order to get drug charges dropped against his half-brother.
In a prison interview with the A&E show “American Justice,” Pauline compared his story to the tale of the boy who cried wolf. “Wasn't me,” he said in a strong Hawaii Pidgin accent. But when he started telling the truth, he said no one believed him.
Shawn Schweitzer took a deal to plead guilty to manslaughter and kidnapping — and to receive credit for about a year served and five years of probation — after seeing juries convict Pauline and his brother in 2000.
In October, Shawn Schweitzer met with prosecutors and recanted. According to the stipulation document, he pleaded guilty because his “parents did not want to risk losing another son and encouraged Shawn Schweitzer to do what he needed to do to come home and not suffer the same fate as his brother.”
He “continues to feel immense guilt about agreeing to the confession and entering a guilty plea for a crime he did not commit and falsely implicating his brother," the document said.
A polygraph test in November showed he was telling the truth when he denied any involvement in the murder, the document said.
Pauline was killed in a New Mexico prison by a fellow inmate in 2015 and Ian Schweitzer is serving his 130-year sentence in an Arizona prison because of a lack of space for inmates in Hawaii.
“Mr. Schweitzer has spent over two decades wrongfully incarcerated based on unreliable informant evidence and accident reconstruction testimony,” the petition said. “It would be unconscionable for him to continue to remain incarcerated, given this overwhelming new evidence of innocence.”
Jennifer Sinco Kelleher, The Associated Press