Norman Whiteside's big break

Dave Ghose

After 31 years in prison, the Grammy-nominated inmate finally receives parole.

Last summer,Norman Whiteside performed the Sam Cooke civil rights anthem "A Change is Gonna Come" at an honors banquet in his longtime home, the Warren Correctional Institution. It was an appropriate-and prescient-choice.

In the audience that day was Trayce Thalheimer, a member of the Ohio Parole Board. And like so many people who have encountered Whiteside's music since Columbus Monthly first wrote about him in December 2009, she came away impressed. "I can attest to everyone in this room-he is a very talented man," Thalheimer told her fellow Parole Board members on the last day of March, as they gathered in an Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction meeting room in Columbus to consider Whiteside's future. A few minutes later, Thalheimer and her fellow board members delivered the change that Whiteside has long sought: After 31 years behind bars for various crimes-including forgery and conspiracy to commit aggravated murder-the Grammy-nominated inmate finally was granted parole. "He has so much material that has not been heard, and now the opportunity has opened," said a joyous Debra Stafford, Whiteside's daughter, shortly after the decision. "He's going to do very well."

A gifted singer, songwriter and keyboardist, Whiteside drew comparisons to Sly Stone and Stevie Wonder when he was a rising star in the 1970s Columbus R&B scene, but bad luck and poor decisions derailed his career before it really took off. Whiteside became involved in a turf battle between rival criminal gangs that resulted in the 1982 accidental death of Laura Carter, a Denison University student killed by a stray bullet during a shootout between the gangs. (The incident inspired the Christopher Cross Top 10 hit "Think of Laura.")

In 2008, the Chicago label Numero Group reissued You Can Fly On My Aeroplane, the 1977 album by Wee, the Columbus group led by Whiteside, who wrote, produced and arranged every song on the album. Whiteside gained a new group of fans as a result of the reissue, including Kanye West, who used the chord progression from Wee's title track for his hit "Bound 2." When "Bound 2" was nominated for two Grammys in 2015, Whiteside shared in the songwriting credits.

The Franklin County Prosecutor's office protested Whiteside's release in March, but the man who once was his most vocal opponent was absent. Pat Sheeran, the former Franklin County assistant prosecutor who handled Whiteside's 1986 murder trial, says his view of Whiteside hasn't changed much. But with Whiteside approaching the 2018 conclusion of his sentence, the state can maintain greater control over his release by granting him parole today, says Sheeran, now a Franklin County Common Pleas judge. "Let's just say I'd be wary of him being completely unsupervised," Sheeran says. "But I do wish him well in terms of getting back into society."

Whiteside, 63, will receive supervised release in September as long as he successfully completes a reintegration program at Southeastern Correctional Complex in Lancaster. Then he'll return to Columbus, where he plans to live with his fiancé, Karen Thimmes, take a job for a trucking company owned by a relative and start connecting with his new fans. "Music will have an awesome presence in whatever I do," Whiteside said in an email.