HONOLULU — On Ian Schweitzer’s first morning of freedom on Wednesday, he woke up in a hotel room, looked out over the balcony at the sea and took in the beauty of the island he’s been away from for over 20 years while on trial for a murder of was imprisoned in 1991 and has always claimed rapes he did not commit.
In an interview with The Associated Press from Big Island, the former Arizona inmate reflected on a range of emotions, from his belief in God, which kept him positive, to his complicated feelings about the police and criminal justice system, to seeking help from really killed Dana Ireland solving the problem.
“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 because I’m a son. “
A judge ordered his release Tuesday after hours of expert testimony on new evidence showing Schweitzer was not 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 on a fishing trail, raped and beaten and barely alive. She later died in a hospital.
Among the new evidence, thanks to advances in DNA testing, was the finding that a T-shirt discovered nearby and soaked in Ireland’s blood belonged to an unknown man and not to Schweitzer or the other two convicted of her murder.
Hawaii County Attorney Kelden Waltjen said in a statement this week that his office has committed to identifying this unidentified man. He was expected to make an announcement on the case on Thursday.
Big Island Mayor Mitch Roth, who was prosecutor in 2019 when the Innocence Project and prosecutors agreed to a re-examination, said Wednesday that “there’s still frustration because we don’t know whose DNA it is.”
Repeated attempts by The Associated Press to reach Ireland’s relatives have been unsuccessful.
“I think there’s a sister out there, you know, God bless her,” Schweitzer said. “I want her to know that my team will do everything in their power to work with … prosecutors to find the unknown DNA.”
Lawyers for the Innocence Project in Hawaii and New York filed a petition late Monday detailing the new evidence and calling for Schweitzer’s release. They are also studying a Hawaii statute that would allow him to collect $50,000 for each year he is behind bars.
Barry Scheck, one of his New York attorneys, said she doesn’t expect prosecutors to press further charges and he hopes Hawaii can learn from the case.
“If three innocent people were convicted in the biggest murder case in state history, then people have to step back and say: How can we prevent something like this from happening again?” said check.
The lawyers are now trying to exonerate the other two. They include Schweitzer’s younger brother Shawn, who pleaded guilty after his brother was convicted in 2000 and sentenced to 130 years.
The younger Schweitzer recanted in October, which helped strengthen the case for his brother’s release.
Keith Shigetomi, the attorney who represented Shawn Schweitzer when he pleaded guilty in exchange for about a year in prison, said Wednesday that at the time he really believed he could convince a jury of his client’s innocence, but Shawn Schweitzer feared To tell the truth is to share the same fate as his brother.
The family thought about it. “Ian told him do it, save yourself,” Shigetomi said, adding that attorneys were working to have the lawsuit dropped.
The Schweitzers became suspects under intense pressure to find Ireland’s killers. In 1994, Frank Pauline Jr. came forward and claimed he was with them when Ian Schweitzer ran over Ireland’s bicycle and then killed them.
But he was questioned at least seven times and each time gave conflicting statements. When it was clear he would be charged along with the Schweitzers, he tried to take it all back, saying he lied to try to get the drug charges against his half-brother dropped.
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 would file a motion for posthumous relief.
Ian Schweitzer said he was aware that the justice system was 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 the murder of his parents on Long Island, New York and released in 2007 after 17 years in prison.
“The best advice I can give him is to take it extremely slow,” Tankleff said, recalling being overwhelmed by everyday things like the options on the grocery store cereal aisle. “The world will be completely different.”
Schweitzer was serving his time in Arizona due to lack of space in the Hawaii prison. Back on the Big Island, he reflected on what it felt like to be home.
“It looks the same when you sit here in this beautiful hotel,” he said. “But I know as soon as I walk down the street and everything has changed, everything has changed.”
AP journalist Claire Rush in Portland and researcher Jennifer Farrar in New York contributed to this report.