A Hawaiian man who spent more than 20 years in jail for rape and murder of a white woman was set free by court after an advanced DNA test proved his innocence.
Albert Ian Schweitzer, 51, was convicted in 2000 and sentenced to 130 years in prison for the rape and murder of Dana Ireland.
The 23-year-old white woman died on Christmas Eve in 1991 on the Big Island following an accident and sexual assault. The case was one of Hawaii’s biggest murders and grabbed national headlines.
Mr Schweitzer was among the three people convicted in the case and the lone man still behind bars.
But New DNA evidence, according to the petition, shows a “Jimmy Z” brand T-shirt found near Ireland and soaked with her blood belonged to an unknown man, and not to one of the three men, as prosecutors claimed.
Additional evidence also showed that Mr Schweitzer’s Volkswagen Beetle car didn’t leave the tire marks at either location where Ireland and her bicycle were found.
This led to his lawyers from Hawaii Innocence Project and New York Innocence Project attorneys filing a motion in court on Monday asking a judge to vacate his conviction.
On Wednesday, a judge in Honolulu court vacated the conviction on Tuesday, freeing Mr Schweitzer after over two decades in jail.
“The new DNA evidence … conclusively proves a jury would likely reach a different verdict of acquittal,” Judge Peter Kubota told the court, following a daylong hearing on a motion to vacate the conviction.
That prompted applause in the Hilo courtroom and hugs for Mr Schweitzer, who was flown to the Big Island for the hearing from the Arizona prison where he was serving his sentence.
The ruling also meant that the killer of Dana Ireland remains at large.
Following the ruling, Mr Schweitzer told AP: “My feelings were all over the place. Nerves, anxiety, scared.”
The justice system is “flawed,” he said, calling himself one of many imprisoned for crimes they didn’t commit. He earlier told reporters that he was “grateful” for the judge doing the “honourable thing.”
The new evidence emerged after Mr Schweitzer’s attorneys and Hawaii County prosecutors entered into a “conviction integrity agreement” in 2019, a first such agreement in Hawaii, to re-examine the evidence in his case.
Such agreements are increasingly being used in the US to investigate questionable convictions and guard against future errors.
Ireland, 23, was riding her bike on Christmas Eve in Kapoho when she was struck by a vehicle. She was later found in the bushes of a fishing trail along Waa Waa Road, five miles from the accident scene. She was nude from the waist down, barely conscious and lost her life at the hospital from blood loss.
The slaying of the blond-haired, blue-eyed visitor from Virginia gained national attention and remained unsolved for years, putting intense pressure on the police to find the killer.
“Whenever you have a white, female victim … it gets a lot more attention than people of colour 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.”
Additional reporting by agencies