After a 23-year-old woman from Virginia was raped and murdered while biking in a remote part of Hawaii in 1991, the police came under intense pressure to solve the case.
A campaign to raise reward money and extensive news coverage eventually led to mounting frustration and calls for a special prosecutor to take over the investigation as the killing went unsolved for years. The authorities charged three men in 1997, all of whom were convicted.
One was killed in prison. One was released after taking a plea deal. The third, Albert Schweitzer, who goes by his middle name, Ian, maintained his innocence.
On Tuesday, pointing to newly discovered DNA evidence that suggested an unknown man may have been responsible for the crime, a judge in Hawaii overturned Mr. Schweitzer’s convictions in the case and ordered that he be freed after spending 23 years in prison.
“Mr. Schweitzer shall be released from his shackles immediately,” the judge, Peter K. Kubota, said as applause erupted in the courtroom in Hilo.
Mr. Schweitzer, 51, had been serving a 130-year sentence since he was convicted in 2000 of kidnapping, sexually assaulting and murdering the woman, Dana Ireland. He was freed 23 years to the day after opening arguments began in his trial on Jan. 24, 2000.
In an interview on Wednesday, Mr. Schweitzer, who was 20 when Ms. Ireland was killed, said that he had maintained hope by “just keeping the right mind-set and believing and trusting and a lot of praying, a lot of praying.”
“I knew I was innocent,” he said. “It’s easy to say but, man, when you are really innocent that’s all you’ve got really going on. There’s not much to say about it except I’m innocent. I’m innocent.”
Judge Kubota said that the fear and outrage stirred by cases like Ms. Ireland’s “can whip up a firestorm” that is hard for “the cool hand of justice to quell.”
The new evidence presented in Mr. Schweitzer’s case, he said, “conclusively proves that, in a new trial, a jury would likely reach a different verdict of acquittal.”
That Ms. Ireland was white and Mr. Schweitzer is part native Hawaiian fueled the news media’s interest in the investigation and put added pressure on the authorities to secure convictions, said Kenneth L. Lawson, co-director of the Hawaii Innocence Project, which represented Mr. Schweitzer along with the Innocence Project.
“It took on a life of its own to where the island believed these guys did it and no one wanted to listen to the evidence,” Mr. Lawson said in an interview on Wednesday. “Everyone wanted to catch the bad guys.”
Ms. Ireland was found on Christmas Eve in 1991, severely injured in the bushes off a fishing trail in the Puna district on the island of Hawaii, several miles from where her mangled bicycle was found. She died early the next morning. Investigators concluded that a driver had run over her while she was cycling and that she had been sexually assaulted and left to die.
Efforts to find a suspect were unsuccessful until 1994, when investigators spoke to Frank Pauline Jr., who was in prison for an unrelated sexual assault, Mr. Schweitzer’s lawyers said.
Mr. Pauline’s account shifted as he gave the police a series of statements over two years, prosecutors said. But he eventually told investigators that he had been in a car with Mr. Schweitzer and his younger brother, Shawn Schweitzer, when they drove into Ms. Ireland on her bicycle and sexually assaulted her, Ian Schweitzer’s lawyers said.
Mr. Pauline recanted his testimony in 1996 but he and the Schweitzer brothers were still indicted in 1997 on charges of murder, kidnapping and sexual assault.
The next year, DNA testing indicated that neither Mr. Pauline nor either of the Schweitzer brothers was the source of sperm recovered from Ms. Ireland’s body and a hospital gurney sheet, Mr. Schweitzer’s lawyers said.
Nevertheless, Mr. Pauline was convicted in 1999 and sentenced to life in prison. He was killed in a New Mexico prison in 2015.
Ian Schweitzer was convicted in 2000 after a jailhouse informant implicated him along with his brother and Mr. Pauline in Ms. Ireland’s murder, Mr. Schweitzer’s lawyers said.
Prosecutors also sought to link the three men to a T-shirt soaked in Ms. Ireland’s blood that was found near her body. Prosecutors presented testimony that the shirt belonged to Mr. Pauline.
Shawn Schweitzer agreed to plead guilty in 2000 to charges of manslaughter and kidnapping, court documents said. He was sentenced to one year in jail with credit for time served and five years of probation.
He later recanted his confession, explaining that he had agreed to plead guilty only because he had seen his brother, who had also proclaimed his innocence, be convicted and sentenced to life in prison, court documents said.
In 2019, prosecutors agreed to reinvestigate Ms. Ireland’s murder with Mr. Schweitzer’s lawyers.
The lawyers presented the results of tests indicating that the Schweitzer brothers and Mr. Pauline were not the sources of DNA found on key pieces of evidence, including skin and sperm cells on the bloody T-shirt and sperm recovered from Ms. Ireland’s body and hospital gurney sheet, court documents said.
The DNA pointed instead to an unidentified man, whom court papers refer to as “unknown male No. 1,” Mr. Schweitzer’s lawyers said.
The lawyers also presented new analyses of an injury on Ms. Ireland’s body and of tire tread marks left where Ms. Ireland was struck and where her body was found. They said that those analyses undermined the prosecutors’ case.
Barry C. Scheck, a co-founder of the Innocence Project, said in an interview on Wednesday that the new evidence underscored “the danger of jailhouse informant witnesses” who are often incentivized to offer incriminating testimony.
Despite participating in the investigation of the case, Hawaii County prosecutors asked the judge not to overturn Mr. Schweitzer’s conviction. A prosecutor argued in court that the new DNA evidence did not “rise to the level that it would probably change the result of the trial.”
“No matter the outcome in these post-conviction proceedings,” prosecutors said in a statement on Tuesday, “we remain committed to identifying unknown male No. 1 and seeking justice for Dana Ireland and her ohana,” a Hawaiian word for family.
Ms. Ireland’s family could not be reached for comment, and prosecutors did not respond to emails asking if they had spoken to the Ireland family.
“Dana is the real victim,” Ian Schweitzer said. “And God bless her, God bless her family. I hope her family can really see the truth. She was always in my prayers.”
Alain Delaquérière contributed research.