Kenneth Ireland was freed in August 2009 after serving more than 19 years in Connecticut prisons for a murder DNA proves he didn’t commit. He was represented by the Connecticut Innocence Project.
In the early morning of September 3, 1986, the body of a 30-year-old mother of four was found in the factory where she worked alone overnight. She had been sexually assaulted and killed by a massive blow to the head.
The Investigation and Identification
An autopsy was conducted on the victim and a rape kit was collected. Sperm cells were identified on the vaginal and anal swabs in the rape kit.
The investigation continued for a year without any arrests. In September 1987, two people came forward to police and implicated Kenneth Ireland and two other men in the crime. Police said the witnesses claimed that Ireland and another man had made incriminating statements to them regarding involvement in the crime. The informants also allegedly provided unpublished information about the crime, which they claimed had come from Ireland.
Eighteen months after the crime was committed, a third witness told police that Ireland had admitted to killing the victim. The witness said she was drunk at the time and may have imagined the statements were made and she wasn’t certain if Ireland was awake when he made the statements.
Based on these witness statements, Ireland was charged with felony murder, first-degree sexual assault and third-degree burglary.
Although the two informants told police that three men had allegedly been involved in the crime, only Ireland was tried for the crime. One of the other men implicated by the witnesses had drowned in 1987 before Ireland was charged. Another was never charged or tried.
A jury trial was held in 1989, three years after the victim was killed. Ireland’s defense alleged that the two informants had brought false information to police in order to protect another possible suspect. Ireland’s attorney called this suspect as a defense witness, and he admitted that he had made inconsistent statements to police during the investigation. The judge prevented Ireland’s attorney from presenting some evidence regarding the alternate suspect, however.
A police officer testified that fingerprints from the crime scene did not match Ireland and a forensic analyst testified that hairs from the scene were “dissimilar” to Ireland’s hair. The analyst also testified that the semen from the rape kit came from a non-secretor (a person who does not exhibit their blood type in their bodily fluids). Ireland is a non-secretor, as are 20 percent of all men, she said.
At the beginnings of its deliberation, the jury was divided 6-6 between acquittal and conviction. After three days of deliberating, however, the jury rendered a guilty verdict and Ireland was sentenced to 50 years in prison. He was just 20 years old.
Post-Conviction Appeals and Exoneration
Ireland appealed his conviction in 1991, arguing that the two witnesses implicated him for a $20,000 reward and that the court had improperly prevented Ireland’s defense from presenting evidence pointing to an alternate suspect. The appeal was denied. In 1999, biological evidence was subjected to DNA testing on appeal but the results were inconclusive.
The Connecticut Innocence Project began to review Ireland’s case in 2007. Two years later - with the advantage of new DNA testing technology - the evidence from the case was retested and ruled out Ireland as the perpetrator. He was granted a new trial and officially exonerated when all charges were dismissed on August 19, 2009. Ireland, who had always maintained his innocence, spent more than 19 years in prison - plus two years in jail awaiting trial - for a crime he did not commit.
In 2012, former deli worker Kevin Benefield, whose DNA was linked to the crime, was convicted of the murder and sentenced to 60 years in prison.
In April 2014, Ireland filed a claim for more than $5 million in compensation under Connecticut's wrongful incarceration compensation law. In October 2014, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy appointed Ireland to the state Board of Pardons and Paroles.