Irvin Schoenwetter, a Flandreau mechanic, spent the past 21 years of his life paying for a crime he did not commit. Earlier this month he was exonerated he received a full pardon from Gov. Mike Rounds.
Irvin Schoenwetter wept when he took his first breath of air outside the prison walls.
He had served his time, but he wasn't truly a free man. He had spent seven long years behind bars for a child rape he did not commit.
He was no longer an inmate, but he was still a prisoner of the circumstances that in 1988 had taken him to Sioux Falls and the state penitentiary.
No doubt the quiet Flandreau man fought back tears again earlier this month, overwhelmed with emotion as he learned that 22 years after he was first accused and then imprisoned he was finally exonerated .
The victim had recanted her testimony years earlier, and on March 12, five years after receiving Schoenwetter's petition, Gov. Mike Rounds had given him a full and complete pardon.
Schoenwetter's conviction for thirddegree rape and incest was overturned, his status as a sex offender reversed, and the records of his court case two decades ago forever sealed. Accused of molesting sister
Irvin Schoenwetter was only 21 years old in July of 1987, just about to turn 22. His half-sister , Cindy Schoenwetter, was 7, and at the time, both were living in Huron with Cindy's mother Irvin's stepmother. Within a few short weeks, Schoenwetter would be accused of repeatedly molesting his young housemate, and a year later he was tried and convicted of rape and incest.
That wasn't what happened, however.
According to a deposition Cindy gave to Flandreau attorney John Shaeffer in 2000, she was molested in the summer of 1987 by her mother's boyfriend. At the time, the man was living with Cindy, her mother, Irvin and another brother.
The first incident occurred while Cindy's mother was at work. Cindy told her about the rape the next day. Even though the molestation continued, Cindy's mother and her boyfriend convinced the child to say it was Irvin who raped her. When she objected , they called her a liar. Her mother's boyfriend told her, Cindy said, to say that Irvin was molesting her. Coerced by abuser
The man threatened Cindy, telling her that if she didn't say it was Irvin who raped her, that the family would end up homeless , with no money or food, and that her mother would be unhappy.
And so, the child, coerced by the only adults she could turn to, was forced to accuse her brother.
Schoenwetter found out he was being accused of molestation after he had moved out of the family's Huron home and into his birth mother's house in Flandreau.
"My first thought "¦ when I found out about the charges against me," said Schoenwetter, "I thought, 'I didn't do it.' And I was very angry with my stepmother ."
Schoenwetter swears that his anger was never directed at Cindy only his stepmother .
"She was a little girl," Schoenwetter said of his half-sister . "She wasn't telling the truth, but that's because she was scared. I was never angry with her. I only felt bad for her. She was too young."
Cindy's mother later married the man who raped Cindy. He became her stepfather . A few years later, the marriage ended in divorce. Headed for prison Schoenwetter was arrested in August 1988. He spent the next three months behind bars in the Huron Regional Correctional Center and was found guilty of third-degree rape and incest on Nov. 30, 1988. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Schoenwetter pleaded not guilty but says he was advised by his attorney not to testify at his trial.
His court-appointed attorney for the trial was George Danforth, who still practices law in Huron today. Asked about the trial and Schoenwetter's case, Danforth now only respond, "I don't recall much about that." Still, Danforth is the attorney who handled Schoenwetter's appeals. No physical evidence
Because the incidents occurred before DNA testing was common practice, Schoenwetter was convicted by Cindy's testimony only, said Shaeffer, the Flandreau attorney. There was no physical evidence presented.
Schoenwetter was 23 when he said goodbye to his young wife and first set foot in the South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls.
The first emotion he felt walking through the doors of the prison was fear, he says. "I remember the first thing I heard. Another inmate shouted 'Welcome to the jungle baby!' at me. I was scared."
Schoenwetter said he would lie to the other inmates about his charges. He told them he was serving time for grand theft auto. Because he was innocent, Schoenwetter says he couldn't bear to have others thinking he was a child rapist. He was also lying out of fear.
"I saw what happened to the other inmates that were in there for rape and child molestation," he said. "I didn't want them to find out that that's what I was charged with." 'He didn't judge me'
Schoenwetter said that while he was in Sioux Falls, only one other inmate knew the truth about the sentence. This man came to be, and remains today, a close friend. "He believed that I was innocent," Schoenwetter said. "He didn't judge me."
Schoenwetter went to prison with only an eighthgrade education. A naturally reserved, quiet person, he hadn't received the encouragement he needed as a child from some of the authority figures in his life. "Teachers told me that I wasn't that smart," he said. "That's why I dropped out of school."
While serving out his sentence , Schoenwetter eventually obtained his general equivalency diploma. He also earned a transfer to the Mike Durfee State Prison (formerly known as Springfield State Prison).
The prison in Springfield is a medium-security facility. Schoenwetter went there to participate in a training program in automotive repair, which had been his passion. But that small bit of joy evaporated after only a few weeks. Some of the other inmates in Springfield found out about Schoenwetter's rape conviction, and he was forced into protective custody and eventually transferred back to Sioux Falls for his own safety. Appeals continued
Throughout his years in prison, Schoenwetter maintained his innocence to everyone involved in his case, anyone who would listen. He stayed in constant contact with his lawyer, trying to move his case through the appeals system. Danforth appealed the case on two issues. One was the lack of physical evidence used to convict Schoenwetter. The other was the testimony of a social worker involved with Cindy. The woman's testimony was allowed as evidence against Schoenwetter, though the social worker was not present at the trial and Danforth had been unable to question her.
The Supreme Court upheld the circuit court's ruling . Schoenwetter would be forced to serve his entire sentence .
During his years in prison, Schoenwetter said his friends and family all stayed in touch with him regularly, always maintaining their belief that he was innocent, although his wife divorced him. He has since lost touch with her.
February 15, 1995, was an emotional day a red-letter day for Schoenwetter and his family. It was the day he was finally released from prison, three years early, due to good behavior. A day for tears
He remembers walking out with tears streaming down his face. His mother and two brothers were there to take him out to eat, and then to drive him home. He immediately moved in with his mother in Flandreau.
Schoenwetter lived the next few years of his life quietly . He found work in Flandreau as a mechanic. He had to register as a sex offender. He was convinced, though, that no matter how long it took, he would one day be able to clear his name, and that the world would know he was an innocent man. "From the first day I met (Schoenwetter), I did not doubt his innocence," said his Flandreau attorney Shaeffer.
It wasn't until his brother died in 2000 that things started to turn around for Irvin.
Cindy had contacted Schoenwetter shortly after the funeral. At the time, she gave him two notarized documents stating that he was indeed innocent, that the crimes he spent most of his adult life paying for were not his fault. The young woman said she was moved by her brother's death. Lost once again
Schoenwetter then hired Shaeffer, who advised him to re-contact his half-sister . But once again, he was unable to locate her. It took four years before they got together again. In an interview with Shaeffer in 2004, Cindy, then 23 and with two children of her own, said "I guess I just feel really bad about it, and I want (Schoenwetter) to be able to have a better life." Her deposition with the Flandreau attorney laid out the entire story of the molestation, completely clearing her half-brother .
The man she says abused her who became her stepfather has also disappeared. He has never been charged with the crime. With the deposition and notarized letters in hand, Shaeffer immediately sent his first letter requesting a pardon for Schoenwetter to Gov. Mike Rounds. The next month, he filed an application for the pardon. Investigating the case Rounds requested that the South Dakota Board of Pardons and Paroles perform its own investigation of Schoenwetter's case. The board unanimously recommended a pardon.
A few months later, Rounds' office interviewed Schoenwetter and Shaeffer. Rounds then requested that the South Dakota Division of Criminal Investigation perform its own investigation.
Years went by. Shaeffer said he called Rounds' office repeatedly but was told again and again that the pardon was still being considered and investigated.
Shaeffer threatened to take Schoenwetter's story to the press, but his client wouldn't allow it. He didn't want to hinder his chances of receiving the pardon.
It wasn't until Russell Olson, South Dakota District 8 senator, learned about the case and asked to get involved that there was finally some positive action. Olson made a personal appeal to the governor for the pardon. A call from the governor
Shaeffer received a call from Rounds on March 11 of this year, five years after he first wrote to the governor. Rounds advised Schaeffer that he was granting the pardon and that official documentation would be arriving in the mail a few days later.
It did. Now, Schoenwetter simply wants to be left alone. He wants his name cleared. He wants to walk as a free man.
"That's all I ever wanted," Schoenwetter said. ""¦ to have my name cleared. I wanted to be able to watch my nephews wrestle, and go to the school for the kids' performances. All I ever wanted was for people to know that I was innocent, that I didn't do it." Contact Amanda Palluck at firstname.lastname@example.org.