But yesterday, Walter Swift walked free, thanks to evidence uncovered by Irish woman Niamh Gunn.
Five years ago Gunn spent six months in New York working with Barry Scheck, the lawyer famous for representing OJ Simpson and Louise Woodward. Away from the cameras, for the past 10 years, he has run the Innocence Project, uncovering evidence to free the wrongfully convicted from life sentences and even death row. Scheck broke down in tears yesterday as he told the judge in court how Gunn’s tireless work on the case had proven Swift’s innocence.
“That woman,” he said pointing to Gunn, his voice breaking, “That Irish intern found all his evidence. She stayed months… to move it forward. She stood by Walter all these years.”
There were more emotional scenes as Swift emerged from the Detroit court yesterday. More than 20 members of his family were there to meet him – including Audrey, the daughter he hadn’t seen in 26 years. She was just two when he was imprisoned.
Walter Swift was convicted of rape and armed robbery in 1982, but always protested his innocence, even refusing parole as it would have meant admitting guilt.
“I knew Niamh wouldn’t give up. She believed in me and my innocence,” Swift said yesterday. “She was tenacious, injecting life into the case all over again. When she came on the scene everything just catapulted, she got all these people to talk who had refused to. It’s that Irish brogue.”
Swift seems remarkably calm, free of any anger. “It’s just me, just my nature,” he says, by way of explanation.
During her six month internship with the Innocence Project in 2003, Gunn uncovered the evidence, from flawed eye-witness identification to unreliable police witness line-ups, central to his release. Her biggest breakthrough came when she tracked down the phone number of Janice Nobliski, the chief investigating officer who had initially dealt with Swift’s case.
Gunn, 30, from Rochestown, Cork, says she will never forget the conversation that ensued — and how it chilled her to her very core.
“We sent an innocent man to prison,” Nobliski said, and went on to tell how the flawed eye-witness line-up she had arranged became crucial to the prosecution’s evidence. When she brought the errors to the attention of her superior, he told her Swift may not have done this crime, but he was sure he had done some crime before and had gotten away with it. She admitted it had haunted her life ever since.
“Niamh was certainly not the norm,” Scheck says.
“She has the gift of the gab and could get anything from anyone on the phone. It was real genius. She really has a gift.”
Gunn, who has since left law and is now a company director at financial services firm Tax Back International, remains dedicated and committed to Swift’s cause. Now she is looking to the future, setting up a website where donations can be given to help him rebuild his life.
“After serving all that time, he will receive no compensation, nothing. With that in mind, I set up a website, www.walterswift.com where donations will be used to help Walter set up a new life for himself,” she said.
Emmanuel Steward, trainer to boxing legends from Ali to Tyson, has offered to help Swift gain employment and accommodation.
Swift, Scheck and Steward are expected to travel to Dublin this summer as guests of the Law Society.
* Read Vickie Maye’s full coverage from Detroit in Saturday’s Weekend magazine.