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Approaching the lectern, Mike Heavey cast a glacial blue gaze over the Exchange Club Of Downtown Honolulu audience of about 50 professionals — authors, a reverend, a clinical psychologist, a swimming pool contractor. Then the admittedly jittery retired Washington state judge, who had rehearsed his speech seven times, dropped his head into his notes.
“Warning,” he said flatly into the microphone. “This presentation may disturb you.”
On the projection screen behind him, the face of Dana Ireland — the 23-year-old victim of a brutal Christmas Eve abduction, rape and murder on the Big Island in 1991 — flashed before the room.
Three men were convicted of Ireland’s murder, Heavey explained. But the DNA evidence from the crime scene matches none of them.
He paused, giving the audience a beat to arrive at what he hopes is the only natural conclusion.
Then he spelled it out: “The man who left his DNA, he’s the killer. And he’s still out there.”
Heavey is the force behind Judges for Justice, a nonprofit formed in 2013 to identify wrongful convictions, gather supporting expert opinions and rally a public outcry for speedy exonerations.
A former Washington state legislator and Superior Court judge, Heavey launched Judges for Justice after spending years relentlessly proclaiming Amanda Knox’s innocence. Dubbed “Foxy Knoxy” in the international news media, Knox was wrongfully convicted of the 2007 sexual attack and murder of her housemate in Perugia, Italy.
Heavey said he immediately knew Knox was innocent. He and the Knox family had been neighbors in Seattle. His daughter had been Knox’s classmate. So he spearheaded a grassroots movement to dispel Knox’s femme fatale characterization and build public support for her release from prison. In 2015, the American college student was exonerated after spending nearly four years in an Italian prison.
Next Heavey became the outspoken defender of Chris Tapp, a high school dropout who spent 20 years in prison for the 1996 rape and murder of a teenage Idaho woman.
Tapp had confessed to the high-profile crime, but there were questions about whether his confession was coerced by police. An investigation later found that Tapp did not match the DNA evidence recovered from the scene. In 2017, Tapp was released from prison under a plea agreement that lowered his sentence to time served.
Now Heavey is on an almost compulsive mission to find out who killed Ireland, the victim of a gruesome rape and murder on Christmas Eve on the Big Island in 1991. He believes her killer is still at large and the three men convicted of the crime are innocent, locked up on faulty and incomplete evidence to assuage political pressure and mitigate public fear.
But his is not the only theory on this case.
The Hawaii Innocence Project, a troop of attorneys and University of Hawaii law students striving to exonerate innocent prisoners, represents Albert “Ian” Schweitzer, one of three men convicted of Ireland’s murder. Like Heavey, HIP believes its client is innocent.
That’s where the similarities end.
In a letter delivered to Hawaii Attorney General Russell Suzuki, HIP earlier this month accused Heavey of interfering with its legal efforts and urged Suzuki to take action. The letter alleges that Heavey has repeatedly meddled in HIP’s work on behalf of Schweitzer by contacting witnesses, providing Schweitzer with unauthorized legal counsel and erroneously notifying Schweitzer’s family that HIP is botching its bid for Schweitzer’s exoneration.
The complaint reads: “Mr. Heavey, without HIP’s knowledge, met with Ian’s family members and multiple witnesses in Hilo and began communication with the forensic lab that was performing DNA testing in Ian’s case. HIP did not authorize this conduct, and soon began to realize that the nature of Mr. Heavey’s involvement was neither desired nor helpful to Ian’s case. Mr. Heavey’s knowledge of the case was ill-informed, his theories were not in line with those of Ian’s legal team, and his tactics included immediate media attention, which HIP believed to be premature and risky.”
In 2015, the Washington State Bar Association issued an advisory letter to Heavey after HIP made numerous requests that he cease and desist his involvement in the Ireland case.
More recently The Innocence Project in New York agreed to co-counsel with HIP and jointly represent Ian Schweitzer. Both groups have criticized Heavey’s retelling of the case as factually inaccurate.
Heavey does not deny interviewing witnesses and members of the Schweitzer family. But he doesn’t see anything wrong with it. He said he only knows about the Ireland case because HIP attorneys introduced him to it and requested his expertise in 2014. When HIP decided against working with Heavey a few months later, Heavey said he was already invested and saw no reason to drop his interest in the case.
According to Heavey, the conflict between himself and HIP boils down to a disagreement about whether and how to move forward with advanced forensic testing of DNA evidence found at the murder scene.
He accuses HIP of being slow or unwilling to explore these new DNA tests.
“The sad part is they got the automatic ticket out for their client and they just keep screwing around with it,” Heavey said.
As the two groups battle each other, Ian Schweitzer remains in prison.
His younger brother, Shawn Schweitzer, pleaded guilty to manslaughter in connection with the Ireland killing and served five years’ probation and a year in jail.
The third convict, Frank Pauline, was killed in a New Mexico prison in 2015 while serving two consecutive life terms for Ireland’s murder.
HIP has filed a petition to vacate Ian Schweitzer’s conviction. It is also seeking a new trial.
Meanwhile, Heavey’s obsessive interest in the case continues to attract admirers — and a notable number of other disparagers.
Before he was a politician, judge or crusader against wrongful convictions, Heavey was a college dropout bussing tables at the Outrigger Canoe Club on Waikiki Beach.
It was 1967 and Heavey, a native of Washington state, was soaking in the local culture, serving coffee to surf legends like Duke Kahanamoku and learning to properly use the pidgin phrase, “da kine.”
On a recent morning in Honolulu, Heavey, now 73, recounted this earlier chapter in his life, narrowing in on his first encounter with Hawaii folklore and how it informs his approach to crafting public campaigns to exonerate wrongfully imprisoned convicts.
At first, Heavey said he was dubious of a local legend that threatens people who carry pork over the Pali Highway with car trouble. But by the time he left Hawaii months later to fight in Vietnam, Heavey said he had started to believe the story — at least well enough not to personally test it.
Heavey spends a lot of time thinking about how people are blinded by their preexisting beliefs.
Confirmation bias is the term psychologists use for the human tendency to interpret new information through the lens of one’s convictions, cherry-picking details that support their point of view and neglecting those that challenge it.
Highly damaging to objectivity, it is a flaw in human reasoning that breeds statistical errors. Politicians are well-known to play into it. It wreaks havoc on the accuracy of witness testimony in criminal cases.
It’s of interest to Heavey because confirmation bias is a root cause of numerous wrongful convictions. The hard work of correcting it can be key to securing an exoneration.
Compelling people to see past their confirmation bias is not easy — even when new evidence contradicts the reasoning that yielded an earlier conviction.
After campaigning from the sidelines to overturn the wrongful murder convictions of Amanda Knox and Chris Tapp, Heavey knows this as well as anyone.
“I think in every locale, but particularly in Hawaii, there’s a superstition that comes down over people,” Heavey said. “You can get sucked into it.”
Working full-time and unpaid from his home in Seattle, Heavey produced a 70-minute documentary on the Ireland murder. He’s purchased advertisements in the local news media soliciting clues from witnesses. And he’s enlisted help from a former FBI criminal profiler who promotes the idea that Ireland’s rape and murder could only be the work of a single, sexually motivated killer.
“The man who left his DNA, he’s the killer. And he’s still out there.” — Mike Heavey, retired Washington state judge
He believes Ireland was riding a bicycle in a Puna neighborhood when she was spotted and run over by a pickup operated by a neighbor who had been silently stalking Ireland. Heavey believes the neighbor, along with a young boy who was his passenger, shoved Ireland into the truck bed. Then the neighbor drove to a remote fishing trail where he raped Ireland and left her to die.
Heavey, who doesn’t have an identity for a neighbor who might have been involved, believes the man likely would have stalked the victim without her knowledge.
Asked about his motivation, Heavey said, “I love all people. But I especially like those who have been hurt or injured wrongfully.”
“You know, some people go out and play golf, some travel when they retire, some go fishing,” he said. “To me, I get a good feeling when I serve other people. I don’t get that when I serve myself. Wrongfully convicted people are some of the most grievously injured people. If I get a hole in one, what good does that do anybody?”
Earlier this month Heavey visited the Big Island Office of the Prosecuting Attorney with a big offer: Up to $10,000 in funds for a forensic test of the DNA evidence found at the Ireland murder scene.
Big Island Prosecuting Attorney Mitch Roth said he thinks there’s a possibility that an unknown fourth person was involved in Ireland’s killing. But he too questions Heavey’s motives and said he won’t be taking him up on his offer to pay for forensic testing.
HIP has also offered to pay for DNA analysis, Roth said, and he’s considering working with them.
“I have some real questions in my mind on the credibility of Mr. Heavey,” Roth said.
Heavey has worked obsessively to establish a new theory about who Ireland’s killer is and why the men charged with the crime are innocent.
Now he must influence the court of public opinion.
For Heavey, the hardest part is convincing people that Pauline was not involved in Ireland’s killing. The Hawaii Innocence Project also believes Pauline was not one of the killers.
“I have some real questions in my mind on the credibility of Mr. Heavey.” — Mitch Roth, Hawaii County prosecutor
A career criminal at the time of the murder, Pauline’s reputation doesn’t make him a sympathetic character. The Schweitzer brothers, on the other hand, are “literally choir boys,” according to Heavey.
“It’s true,” he said. “I mean, growing up they had paper routes. But Pauline is not a likable guy. For some people, that’s a problem. Frank was a bad guy — but he didn’t do this.”
In May, Heavey asked Hawaii County Councilwoman Eileen O’Hara to urge local police to find the man who produced the DNA evidence at the crime scene.
In an email reply, O’Hara acknowledged that justice may not have been served in Ireland’s murder. But she said she strongly opposes reopening the investigation. And she urged Heavey to discontinue his advertisements in the local newspaper that seek tips, leads and witness accounts.
“I’m quite certain that justice was served by our local community,” O’Hara wrote. “That is all I will ever say on the matter as I was closer than desirable to this case when it happened. The fact that bringing this up now is further traumatizing the family and friends of Dana Ireland is not a small matter.”
“For instance, Dana’s sister’s husband has recently been asked to provide a DNA sample,” O’Hara continued. “That is simply victimizing the victims of this horrific crime and since you don’t personally know some of these folks as I do, you may not realize how off-base such a request is.”
But Heavey has continued his probe at full throttle.
“It’s a crime that turns your stomach and I understand why people don’t want to have their stomach turned,” Heavey said. “But to me three innocent people have been convicted and the killer is still out there. That is unacceptable.”
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