Michael Ustaszewski says he won’t confess to a 1977 murder just to be released from the Marion Correctional Institution because he’s not guilty of one.
His death warranted only a brief mention in the newspaper.
“Man found in YMCA room was stabbed,” the small headline in The Blade read.
Henry B. Cordle, 74, small of stature and nearly blind, was not homeless or destitute, though. Retired from the former Electric Autolite Co., Mr. Cordle was a father of six, a widower, a fiercely independent man who chose to rent a room at the YMCA rather than stay with family while work was being done on his house.
On Aug. 22, 1977, he was found dead in his third-floor room at the downtown Y, having bled to death after sustaining 37 stab wounds.
Michael Ustaszewski’s conviction for Mr. Cordle’s aggravated murder attracted almost as little attention. The headline on the seven-sentence story was “Youth, 18, sentenced to life in slaying of elderly YMCA resident.”
A juvenile delinquent who had been living at the Y after being released from the Ohio Youth Commission, Ustaszewski was identified by co-defendant Michael Morris as Mr. Cordle’s killer. Morris testified they had gone to the man’s room to rob him, but he said Ustaszewski stabbed him.
Both men were sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 15 years.
Thirty-five years later, Ustaszewski, now 53, remains locked up at Marion Correctional Institution, insisting as he did in 1977 — and at eight parole hearings since 1992 — that he didn’t do it. He says he wasn’t even at the YMCA the night of the murder.
A ‘fair shot’
On Thursday, the Ohio Parole Board is set to meet with advocates for Mr. Cordle and Ustaszewski before deciding whether 35 years is long enough.
The full board hearing was requested by a family member of Mr. Cordle after the parole board met with Ustaszewski in October and voted, for the first time, to recommend his release.
“It’s frustrating sometimes. You can’t actually fight your case again,” Ustaszewski said during an interview last week at the Marion prison. “The only thing you can do is show reasonable doubt that you could actually be innocent. … I just want a fair shot. That’s all I’m asking for.”
Both the Lucas County Prosecutor’s Office and Mr. Cordle’s relatives say they are convinced Ustaszewski is guilty, and they will object to his release.
“A 74-year-old man was sliced and slashed 37 times — on his head, his neck, his torso, his arms, his hands — not one serious enough to kill him but a combination of which caused him to bleed out,” said Ian English, an assistant prosecutor who plans to attend the hearingon Thursday. “When the defendant and co-defendant left his room, that man was still suffering.”
Mr. English said Ustaszewski has offered no sympathy and expressed no remorse, nor has he admitted guilt. If Ustaszewski is released, he will kill again, the assistant prosecutor said unequivocally.
“He has done nothing to address the mental deficiencies that put him into prison. He can’t,” Mr. English said. “He won’t admit he’s done wrong. He’s defective. He’s a killer.”
Mr. Cordle’s six children have all since died. Shannon Orosco, 41, said she and her older sister will travel Thursday to Columbus on behalf of their mother, and more importantly for their grandfather, who died in such a horrible way. She said she does not think 35 years is enough for the man convicted of his murder. No amount of time is enough.
“He murdered somebody. He does not deserve to walk out through [the] gates,” Ms. Orosco said.
Not everyone agrees.
Melissa Sheridan Embser-Herbert, a professor of sociology at Hamline University in St. Paul, is Ustaszewski’s most outspoken advocate. Her late stepfather picked Ustaszewski up when he was hitchhiking in the 1970s, and her family befriended him.
Ms. Embser-Herbert said she heard about Ustaszewski over the years but never met him until 2009, when she took her mother to visit him at Marion Correctional.
“We stopped to see him 32 years to the day of his arrest,” she recalled.
“I went into it thinking I may walk out of there [saying], ‘Seriously, you people supported this guy?’ We spent about six hours with him, and when we walked out I thought, ‘I just met someone who’s been in prison for three decades who may be innocent.’”
Ms. Embser-Herbert, who has a law degree but does not practice, started doing research. She read the trial transcripts for Ustaszewski and Morris, who also was convicted of aggravated murder and remains in prison. She read the police reports, tracked down witnesses, hired a private investigator, and created a Web site, justice-for-michael.org.
She said it’s incredible that Ustaszewski could be convicted of aggravated murder based largely on the word of Morris, who admitted he was in the victim’s room when the murder and robbery happened, and the word of a jailhouse snitch who testified that Ustaszewski told him he did it. As she sees it, two not-so-credible witnesses plus an absence of physical evidence do not make a conviction.
She is convinced Ustaszewski was wrongfully convicted but has given up trying to prove that. Instead, she is focused on helping him get out of prison, giving him an opportunity to lead a productive life while he’s still able.
“I’ve had to ask myself, ‘What if I found out he was guilty?’ I had to get to the place where I said, ‘Thirty-five years is enough,’” she said. “Then I had to answer, ‘Am I doing the right thing? Trying to get someone released who has not lived in the world for 35 years?’”
She paused then answered her own question: “That’s not a reason to keep someone incarcerated.”
According to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, the average prison stay for Ohioans convicted of aggravated murder ranged from 25 years to 27 years for inmates paroled between 2000 and 2010.
Ustaszewski, a soft-spoken man who obtained his GED and has taken vocational training in prison, said he was working as a male prostitute at the time of his arrest and likely would have contracted AIDS and died. He said that in an ironic way, prison may have saved his life.
“It’s been a blessing, and it’s also been very painful,” he said.
Ustaszewski said if he’s released, he would like to work with offenders or find other ways to make his life count.
Told of the prosecutor’s prediction that if freed, he will commit more crimes and wind up back in prison, he shook his head.
“He really doesn’t know me,” Ustaszewski said. “Thirty-five years is a long time from being a juvenile, and I believe I’ve grown up a whole lot, and my thinking is not the same. My mind-set is totally the opposite of what it used to be.”
Bret Vinocur, a victims’ advocate who runs the Web site blockparole.com, routinely works with victims’ families to keep their loved ones’ killers in prison.
He said he took a look at Ustaszewski’s case in October, as he does with most aggravated murder cases that come before the Ohio Parole Board. He decided it wasn’t one he could put his heart into because he didn’t feel absolutely certain of Ustaszewski’s guilt.
“Based on the facts of the crime, and what I’ve read and the research I’ve done, this is a case where I’m going to put my faith in the parole board to make the right decision,” Mr. Vinocur said. “This is one of the rare cases we’re not taking a position on.”
The correction department states emphatically on its Web site that parole decisions are based on public safety and the risks an offender poses to society.
“Since due process and guilt issues have been resolved prior to sentencing, public safety is the only criteria for release decisions,” the agency says.
Still, Mr. English said he suspects Ustaszewski would have been released by now had he admitted to the crime.
Ms. Embser-Herbert agrees.
“Ohio’s tough,” she said. “An elderly man, 30-some wounds, it’d be a tough call, but I think if he decided I just want to get out of here, he could have been very solicitous and remorseful and said, ‘Oh, I was really young.’ He has pissed off everyone from here to Sunday because he insists on being innocent.”
Ustaszewski isn’t so sure what the parole board would do if he suddenly confessed. To him, it doesn’t really matter, because he won’t do it.
When asked what he’d say if the parole board told him he could go free today if he admitted his guilt, he didn't hesitate. “I’m not guilty,” he said quietly.
Contact Jennifer Feehan at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-213-2134.