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Journey toward truth

Family connection proves life-changing for sociology professor and the innocent man she helped get released from prison

Article by Marla Holt
Photo by Kate Conners

Sometime in the mid-1970s near Toledo, Ohio, Máel Embser-Herbert’s stepfather, Ralph Walker, stopped to pick up a teenaged hitchhiker named Michael Ustaszewski, who, by most accounts, was a troubled young man. Handed over to the state as a small child, he had lived in several foster homes and state facilities. Walker asked the young man to stay in touch. Little did Ustaszewski and Embser-Herbert—who was away at college at the time—know, that encounter with her stepfather would be the connection that would change both of their lives many years later. 

By the summer of 1977, Ustaszewski was living at the YMCA in downtown Toledo, where, in August of that year, a 74-year-old man named Henry Cordle was stabbed to death. There were no witnesses, but all of the Y’s residents were under suspicion. Through circumstances beyond his control or understanding, Ustaszewski, then 18 years old, was arrested, tried, and convicted for aggravated murder in the case. He received a life sentence.

For the next 35 years, Ustaszewski maintained his innocence—a fact that likely contributed to his being denied parole seven times, as he was unwilling to admit guilt and remorse for the crime. But in April 2013, he was finally paroled, thanks in large part to the work Embser-Herbert did on his behalf.

Embser-Herbert, who holds a JD degree as well as a PhD in sociology, has been a sociology professor at Hamline University since 1995. She is also trained as a restorative justice facilitator and serves as director of Hamline’s Center for Justice and Law.

When Embser-Herbert’s stepfather died in 2007 and her sister wanted to notify Ustaszewski, with whom her stepfather had corresponded for years, Embser-Herbert’s first thought was, “Huh, that guy’s still in prison?” 

“It had been 30 years, and by then, I’d gone to law school. I was familiar with the Innocence Project, so I Googled the case just because I was curious,” she says. Embser-Herbert learned that Ustaszewski had indeed asked the Ohio Innocence Project (OIP) to take his case in 2005, hoping OIP would work to exonerate him through DNA analysis of the blood on the knife that was used in Cordle’s murder. OIP discovered that all of the evidence in Ustaszewski’s case had been destroyed in 1979, thereby nullifying any hope of DNA analysis and causing the organization to pull out.

“It intrigued me even more,” Embser-Herbert says. “Bureaucracies function through institutional inertia, so how could it be that the evidence was destroyed a mere 13 months after Michael’s conviction, before the decision in his appeal was even released?”

A fateful visit  

It was the first of many questions Embser-Herbert would have, but she didn’t revisit the case until 2009, when she accompanied her elderly mother on a visit to see Ustaszewski at Ohio’s Marion State Penitentiary. Having never met him, Embser-Herbert went to the prison with no expectations, just curiosity.

Six hours later, she was hooked. 

“I walked out thinking, ‘This guy was totally railroaded,’” she says, noting oddities and inconsistencies in his case that begged for further investigation, including the fact that Ustaszewski had been convicted solely on the testimony of two people: a codefendant, Michael Morris, who was also found guilty but claimed Ustaszewski committed the murder, and a jailhouse informant who—likely in exchange for a reduction in felony charges against him, Embser-Herbert says—said Ustaszewski confessed to the crime. With the help of a private investigator, she tracked down that informant in 2011, at which time he admitted in an email, “All [Ustaszewski] ever told me was that he never did it.” 

Ustaszewski also possessed a statement that Morris later made in prison that partially read, “I pinned it on the Polack.” The private investigator and Embser-Herbert obtained affidavits from other inmates who stated that Morris spoke of “doing this guy wrong.” 

Embser-Herbert spent four years investigating Ustaszewski’s case. “She is an angel, and she gave me hope,” Ustaszewski says. “I had given up and figured I was going to die in prison for something I didn’t do.”

Embser-Herbert discovered myriad things that she says support her view that Ustaszewski should never have been tried, let alone convicted. For example, Ustaszewski had been reluctant to provide an alibi for himself because he didn’t want to reveal he was working as a male prostitute on the night of the murder. Several witnesses—people who could have raised questions about Morris’s testimony—were never called to the stand. The coroner had testified that a knife owned by Ustaszewski, which was never tested for blood residue, couldn’t have made Cordle’s fatal wounds. The police officer who responded to the 911 call and the detective investigating the case had provided contradictory testimonies about the scene of the crime.

Unfortunately, the results of her investigation weren’t enough to get Ustaszewski exonerated for the crime. The work did, however, prove enough to get Ustaszewski paroled. In the fall of 2012, Embser-Herbert wrote a statement for Ustaszewski’s eighth parole hearing, detailing her investigation and arguing that he was suitable for release. She testified in person for the full parole board in February 2013 and awaited the decision with a room full of Ustaszewski’s relatives. 

“They granted parole, and I burst into tears,” Embser-Herbert says. 

Free at last 

Two months later, Ustaszewski walked out of prison to greet family members and Embser-Herbert, who was there to help him get accustomed to life on the outside. 

“I kissed the ground and thanked God for leading me through that journey,” Ustaszewski says. “I can’t ever repay Máel for what she did for me. Saying thank you will never be enough.”

Embser-Herbert visited Ustaszewski four times during his first year out of prison to track his reentry. “It was up and down,” she says, but his parole officers “have nothing but great things to say about his performance.” 

As a result of the experience, Embser-Herbert developed a first-year seminar course at Hamline called Justice Denied: Wrongful Convictions in the United States. The students examined the many complicated factors that can lead to innocent people being convicted of very serious crimes and created a public service announcement for the Innocence Project of Minnesota

“The whole issue is the perfect intersection of everything I’ve ever been interested in or passionate about as a sociologist,” she says. “Fortunately, Hamline supports a wide range of faculty work, enabling me to engage in an effort that was valuable to both me—becoming Michael’s advocate—and, ultimately, to him.” 

For more about this story, visit Embser-Herbert's blog, journeytowardtruth.org.