HONOLULU (KHON2) – The Hawaii Innocence Project fights for the freedom of those who have been wrongfully convicted and advocates to prevent future injustice in the state of Hawaii.
The organization was founded in 2005 and has since exonerated four people.
Kenneth Lawson with Hawaii Innocence Project said exoneration cases take an average of 10-15 years before an innocent person is finally free. So, it’s impressive that in less than 20 years they have helped four people.
“We work to free the innocent, prevent wrongful convictions, and create fair, compassionate, and equitable systems of justice for everyone,” said Lawson. “Our work is guided by science and grounded in anti-racism.”
Hawaii Innocence Project is a member of the Innocence Network which is a collection of organizations across the nation that come together for justice and freedom.
“No one deserves to be in prison for a crime someone else committed,” said Lawson.
The Innocence Network has exonerated 2,839 people, four of whom are in Hawaii thanks to the Hawaii Innocence Project.
Although Hawaii does not see a lot of wrongful convictions, Lawson said people shouldn’t have to wait in prison if they are innocent.
“Not a lot, but ‘One wrongful conviction in Hawaii is too many,'” said Lawson. “We have dozens of cases of people who are actually innocent whose cases we are working on.”
Most recently this organization helped exonerate Albert Ian Schweitzer for the murder of Dana Ireland.
According to the Hawaii Innocence Project Dana was visiting the Big Island from her home state of Virginia and had cycled from her parents’ rental home to a friend’s house for Christmas Eve dinner.
Later that afternoon Dana was found incoherent, partially clothed, and believed she was the apparent victim of assault. She later died of her injuries Dec. 25, 1991.
The Schweitzer brothers were later indicted on Oct. 10, 1997, but according to Hawaii Island Police, the charges were dismissed without prejudice on Oct. 20, 1998.
However, despite the lack of DNA evidence, the Schweitzer brothers were re-indicted on May 20, 1999, according to the Hawaii Innocence Project.
“It’s been a long time coming. It’s so, so emotional,” Lawson said holding back tears. “When you see someone who has been freed from a wrongful conviction, when you see somebody who’s been in prison for 24 years and innocent, gain their freedom, you know. It’s the reason why I went to law school.”
Another notable case that the Hawaii Innocence Project assisted on was back in 2017 when Hawaii officials wrongly arrested a homeless man, Joshua Spriestersbach, for a crime committed by someone else and locked him up in a state hospital for more than two years.
This case made national news because while Spriestersbach was in custody, he was forced to take psychiatric drugs and then tried to cover up the mistake by quietly setting him free with just 50 cents to his name.
At the time of the arrest, Spriestersbach thought he was being taken in for violating Honolulu’s sit/lie ban, which criminalizes the houseless for sitting or sleeping in certain areas of the city.
However, the arresting officer mistook Spriestersbach for a man named Thomas Castleberry, who had a warrant out for his arrest for violating probation in a 2006 drug case.
Spriestersbach’s story is one of many stories the Hawaii Innocence Project works on and continues to fight and advocate for those who are wrongfully incarcerated.
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For those interested in volunteering with the organization or donating to their cause you can do so by going to their website.