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Published: Wednesday, 2/9/2011

Man with role in '97 murder freed from jail


Thirteen years and 58 days after he was taken into custody as an accomplice to the shooting death of a man outside an East Toledo party, Andrew Mierzejewski was released from prison Tuesday.

Mierzejewski, 35, was granted a new trial in July, more than a decade after a Lucas County Common Pleas Court jury found him guilty of complicity to commit murder for his involvement in the April, 1997, shooting. In 1998, he was sentenced to life in prison.

Tuesday, Mierzejewski pleaded no contest to complicity to commit involuntary manslaughter with a gun specification. Judge Frederick McDonald sentenced him to the maximum of 13 years in prison.

"This means that the defendant has served his sentence so he will be released forthwith," the judge said at the afternoon hearing.

The 1997 incident evolved after a verbal altercation began between guests at the Dearborn Avenue party, Assistant County Prosecutor Frank Spryszak said.

As John Barnhart and Matthew Cherry left the party, they were followed by a group including Mierzejewski and convicted shooter Richard Sheehy. Sheehy opened fire at the two as they began to drive away. Mr. Barnhart was shot in the head and died shortly thereafter. His passenger was shot in the leg.

Sheehy entered a plea to murder and was sentenced to life in prison. After a jury trial, Mierzejewski was convicted of goading Sheehy and of driving the getaway vehicle and also sentenced to life.

During a June 17 hearing, Mierzejewski's cousin Michael Billegas testified before Judge McDonald that he was at the party, and it was he, not Mierzejewski, who encouraged Sheehy to pull the trigger. Billegas said during the hearing that he did not testify at Mierzejewski's 1997 trial because he was not guaranteed he would not be charged with complicity.

He said he finally came forward in 2009 in an affidavit that was filed with Mierzejewski's motion for a new trial. In the affidavit, Billegas said he was the only one yelling to Sheehy to "do him up."

Billegas, 30, pleaded guilty at the time to inciting violence and was sentenced to community control.

In his opinion released July 15, Judge McDonald wrote that he believed Billegas' testimony at the hearing to be credible. With new evidence available, the judge ruled in favor ofMierzejewski's motion for a new trial.

Mr. Spryszak Tuesday said that he discussed with the victims' families the difficulties of retrying the case so many years later. To ensure a conviction, the families agreed to the plea agreement.

Mierzejewski declined to comment in court. Mr. Barnhart's family also declined to comment in court.

As a result of the plea agreement, the murder charge was dismissed. Mierzejewski was sentenced to 10 years for the involuntary manslaughter charge plus three years for the gun specification.

After the hearing, Mierzejewski's attorney, Rick Kerger, said he believed the plea was an appropriate resolution.

"It was a tragedy, clearly," he said. "The question is, who was responsible for what?"

Contact Erica Blake at: eblake@theblade.com or 419-213-2134.

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