Family outraged at not being notified of killer's release

Relatives of murder victim question why prosecutors could not track them down

August 03, 2013|By Ian Duncan, The Baltimore Sun

Harry Yuspa had many relatives in the Baltimore area — some have lived at the same addresses for 40 years. Yet prosecutors said they couldn't find any to let them know the man convicted of killing Yuspa would soon be released.

That meant none of the relatives were able to object as Zachary McCallister walked out of court last month. McCallister had been serving a sentence of life plus 20 years for the 1974 murder of Yuspa during a robbery of his kosher butcher shop.

The Baltimore state's attorney's office has negotiated the release of 20 prisoners after Maryland's highest court ruled that criminal convictions before 1980 may have been compromised by unfair jury instructions. As prosecutors agreed in Baltimore Circuit Court to set six of those convicts free last month, officials said they had tried without success to find the victims' families.

But Merle Porter questions those efforts. She is the daughter of Harry Yuspa — an unusual surname in this area.

"A 10-year-old, if they know alphabetical order, could have found my family," Porter said. "Every Yuspa in the phone book is my family."

She learned about the release of McCallister, now 55, in a phone call from a cousin who happened to read about it in the newspaper. The revelation brought back painful memories. After her father died, she said, she contemplated suicide, and her marriage fell apart.

"She said, 'Oh my God, you're not going to believe this. He was just let out,'" Porter recalled her cousin saying. "My insides shook until my daughter and son-in-law came home."

About 200 decades-old cases across the state could be affected by the Court of Appeals ruling that led to McCallister's release. In the case of cop killer Merle Unger, the court found that jury instructions before 1980 left room for defendants to be convicted even in the presence of reasonable doubt. The decision cleared the way for defendants to request new trials.

Prisoners who have been released since the May 2012 ruling had requested new trials, but Baltimore prosecutors decided the convicts posed no threat to the public. Officials have said they'll fight to keep dangerous people behind bars, but acknowledge the difficulty of finding witnesses and other evidence so long after the cases were closed..

Hayley Porter, Yuspa's granddaughter, said the family would have liked to appear in court to make a statement to the judge — an opportunity afforded to the families of several victims. While their presence in court might not have prevented McCallister's release, the family said they were robbed of a chance to remind the court about their loved one.

The family was finally contacted Friday by the Baltimore state's attorneys office, she said. A prosecutor told her that the family should have filled out a victim contact form, but Porter said that form wasn't available at the time of McCallister's conviction.

Only since the late 1990s have crime victims been able to enter contact information in court files using a standard form, said Barbara Bond, director of victims' services at the Maryland attorney general's office.

Prosecutors working on McCallister's case searched for family members in a parole system database and records kept by a statewide victims' advocates group, according to court records. Neither search turned up any information.

Mark Cheshire, a spokesman for the state's attorney's office, said a retired homicide detective also was assigned to find victim contact information but only found disconnected phone numbers.

A search for people in Maryland named Yuspa returns a valid number for Rochelle Yuspa, who had been married to Harry Yuspa's son. After their divorce, she said she remained on good terms and in close contact with the family.

"If there are available sources that we're not tapping, we need to do so," Cheshire said, when asked about the Internet search.

Bond said victims groups have been working to track down families since the ruling threw the trials into question. Her office notifies crime victims and their family members of appellate court dates.

But it's the job of prosecutors to notify victims of lower court dates, including the ones during which McCallister and others were released from prison. Once prosecutors decline to retry the convicts, the two sides must appear in court for a judge to approve the release agreement. Victims and their families can testify at those proceedings.

Bond questioned whether prosecutors were doing enough to find victims and their families.

"People are relying too much on the court record and information that might have been provided at the time and maybe not common-sense approaches," Bond said.

Prosecutors said McCallister, who was 16 at the time of the murder, fired a single close-range shot into the left side of Yuspa's head during a robbery of his butcher shop in Baltimore's Park Heights neighborhood. McCallister, left bloody footprints as he left the store, police said.

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