Freed after 20 years, former Arizona inmate reflects on case, future

  • In US
  • 2023-01-26 03:30:02Z
  • By AZCentral | The Arizona Republic

HONOLULU - On Ian Schweitzer's first morning of freedom Wednesday, he woke up in a hotel room, looked over the balcony at the ocean and took in the beauty of the island he had been away from for over 20 years while imprisoned for a 1991 killing and rape he has always maintained he didn't commit.

In an interview with The Associated Press from the Big Island, the former Arizona inmate reflected on a range of emotions, from his faith in God that kept him positive to his complicated feelings about police and the criminal justice system to a quest to help solve who really killed Dana Ireland.

"We want justice for Dana," Schweitzer said.

Schweitzer said he considers himself a victim of the same crimes he was convicted of: "I feel like they murdered 25 years of my life. I feel like they kidnapped me away from my family. I feel like they raped me of being a son."

A judge ordered his release Tuesday after hours of expert testimony on new evidence showing Schweitzer wasn't responsible for the death of Ireland, 23, a tourist from Virginia. She was visiting a remote part of the Big Island when she was found along a fishing trail, raped and beaten and barely alive. She died later at a hospital.

The new evidence, thanks to advances in DNA testing, included a finding that a T-shirt discovered nearby and soaked with Ireland's blood belonged to an unknown man, and not Schweitzer or the two others convicted of killing her.

Hawaii County Prosecuting Attorney Kelden Waltjen said in a statement this week that his office is committed to identifying that unknown man. He was expected to make an announcement about the case Thursday.

Big Island Mayor Mitch Roth, who was prosecuting attorney in 2019 when the Innocence Project and prosecutors agreed to reinvestigate, said Wednesday that "there's still frustration we don't know whose DNA it is."

Repeated attempts by The Associated Press to reach Ireland's relatives were unsuccessful.

"I think there's a sister out there, you know, God bless her," Schweitzer said. "I want her to know that my team is going to do everything that they possibly can to work with … prosecutors in finding the unknown DNA."

Innocence Project attorneys in Hawaii and New York filed a petition late Monday outlining the new evidence and seeking Schweitzer's release. They are also studying a Hawaii statute that would let him collect $50,000 for every year he was behind bars.

Barry Scheck, one of his New York attorneys, said they don't expect prosecutors to pursue further charges and he hopes Hawaii can learn from this case.

"If three innocent people could be convicted in the biggest murder case in the history of the state, then people have to step back and say, how can we prevent this from happening again?" Scheck said.

Attorneys are now turning to exonerating the other two. They include Schweitzer's younger brother Shawn, who took a guilty plea deal after his brother was convicted in 2000 and sentenced to 130 years.

The younger Schweitzer recanted in October, which helped bolster the case for his brother's release.

Keith Shigetomi, the lawyer who represented Shawn Schweitzer when he pleaded guilty in exchange for credit for about year in jail, said Wednesday that he truly believed back then that he could convince a jury of his client's innocence, but Shawn Schweitzer feared telling the truth would mean sharing the same fate as his brother.

The family thought about it. "Ian told him, do it, save yourself," Shigetomi said, adding that lawyers are working on withdrawing the plea.

The Schweitzers became suspects amid intense pressure to find Ireland's killer. In 1994, Frank Pauline Jr. came forward and claimed he was with them when Ian Schweitzer ran Ireland's bike over and then killed her.

But he was interviewed at least seven times and gave inconsistent accounts each time. When it was clear he would be indicted along with the Schweitzers, he tried to take it all back and said he had lied to try to get drug charges dropped against his half-brother.

Pauline was convicted, along with the brothers, and killed by a fellow inmate in a New Mexico prison in 2015.

Myles Breiner, an attorney representing Pauline's family, said Wednesday he will file a motion seeking to have him posthumously exonerated.

Ian Schweitzer said it's clear to him the justice system is flawed.

"It didn't matter if I was innocent," he said. "They just needed a conviction."

Martin Tankleff knows how Schweitzer feels. He was wrongly convicted of murdering his parents on Long Island, New York, and was released in 2007 after 17 years in prison.

"The best piece of advice I can give him is take it extremely slow," Tankleff said, recalling how he was overwhelmed by everyday things like the options in the cereal aisle of the grocery store. "The world will be completely different."

Schweitzer served his time in Arizona because of a lack of prison space in Hawaii. Back on the Big Island, he reflected on what it felt like to be home.

"Sitting right here in this beautiful hotel, it looks the same," he said. "But I know once I go down the street and everything's changed, everything's changed."

AP journalist Claire Rush in Portland and researcher Jennifer Farrar in New York contributed to this report.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Freed after 20 years, former Arizona inmate reflects on case, future


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