Man sentenced to life for murder may soon be free
Updated: Friday, April 12 2013, 10:51 PM EDT
COVERT TOWNSHIP (NEWSCHANNEL 3) - A man sentenced to life in prison without parole for murder may soon be free.
Leo Tersliner's conviction has been affirmed in appellate court, State Supreme Court and Federal District Court.
But, an alleged error by the Van Buren County Prosecutor's Office could give him freedom in less than a month, and the victim's family is furious.
On May 2, 1971, police surrounded a bar in Covert Township.
Shortly after a phone rang in Benton Harbor.
Donald Swetay says he and his wife got a call that his father was in a fight.
Swetay says they didn't get the real story until they arrived at the scene.
"They told us at that time that he had been murdered," Swetay said.
Court records show that Joe Swetay was tortured to get him to open the safe in his home, which was right door to his bar and restaurant.
Police arrested two men for the crime--James Wayne Wilson and Leo Raymond Terlisner.
"(Tersliner) claimed he was the lookout, but the way he talked I knew in my mind, he was in the house," Swetay said.
The prosecutor argued during the original trial that physical evidence shows at least two men participated in the murder, and Tersliner claimed there was a third man.
A third man was never found or identified, but even if there was a third man, Tersliner's admission of participation in the planning of the robbery, being the driver, and acting as the lookout, was enough to get him life without parole based on the common law doctrine of felony murder that existed at the time.
A motion submitted in 2008, however, could change that.
It was submitted by Tersliner's attorney and while the judge asked for a response from the Van Buren County Prosecutor, one never came.
Without it, Judge Paul Hamre, after what he called "a thorough review of the case," granted the motion.
It argues that it was never proven Tersliner participated in the actual murder, and since the common law doctrine has since changed, the first degree murder charge should be dropped to unarmed robbery.
New Prosecutor Michael Bedford asked Judge Hamre to table his decision until an appropriate appeal could be put together, but just Friday afternoon, the request was denied.
If it stands, Tersliner, convicted for a murder when he was only 23, would walk out of prison 42 years after the grisly crime.