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Published: Thursday, 2/21/2013

Restoring justice

The Ohio Parole Board is likely to decide today whether former Toledoan Michael Ustaszewski, now a prisoner at Marion Correctional Institution, will be freed after serving 35 years for a murder he was convicted of when he was 18. Given the doubts about Mr. Ustaszewski’s guilt, and the amount of time he has served, the board should free him.

At eight prior parole hearings since 1992, Mr. Ustaszewski has firmly maintained his innocence, even though admitting the crime would greatly increase his chances of a release. The Parole Board generally expects, and rightly so, that prisoners who are up for parole acknowledge their guilt and show remorse. That’s reasonable, because people can’t change without first admitting their mistakes.

But in those rare cases in which a convicted criminal is innocent, requiring him or her to show remorse is unjust and unreasonable. And innocent people do go to prison: Over the last two decades, hundreds of post-conviction DNA exonerations have shown that the criminal justice system makes mistakes.

Without DNA evidence, however, overturning a wrongful conviction can be practically impossible. Among the more than 300 post-conviction DNA exonerations in the United States, faulty informants, providing the kind of evidence used to convict Mr. Ustaszewski, were to blame in nearly 20 percent of the cases.

Mr. Ustaszewski, now 53, was convicted of stabbing to death 74-year-old Henry Cordle, a retired Electric Autolite Co. worker who was renting a room at the downtown YMCA. On Aug. 22, 1977, he was found dead in his third-floor room, after sustaining 37 stab wounds. Mr. Ustaszewski was also living at the Y.

In opposing Mr. Ustaszewski’s release, Lucas County prosecutors have cited the brutal nature of the crime and his refusal to acknowledge his guilt. But Mr. Ustaszewksi was convicted, despite a lack of physical evidence, largely on the word of his co-defendant, Michael Morris, and a jailhouse snitch.

Mr. Ustaszewski said he wasn’t even in the YMCA the night of the murder. Both he and Mr. Morris were sentenced to life in prison, with the possibility of parole after 15 years.

The average prison stay for Ohioans who had been convicted of aggravated murder ranged from 25 to 27 years for inmates granted parole between 2000 and 2010. Mr. Ustaszewski has served 35 years, earning his GED and getting vocational training in prison. The former juvenile delinquent is a far different person from the one he was 35 years ago.

Now it’s up to the Ohio Parole Board to administer the justice Mr. Ustaszewski has, so far, probably been denied.



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