Analysis shows varied application of death sentence in 1983 cases

ANDREW WELSH-HUGGINS
Associated Press

COLUMBUS, Ohio - A review of some of Ohio's earliest death penalty cases found little consistency comparing the seriousness of the crime with the outcome, including whether offenders were sentenced to death.

The lawyers for one of those defendants scheduled to die Sept. 20, killer John Spirko, planned to prevent evidence Tuesday to a state board weighing whether to recommend mercy.

Prosecutors cited two factors in the state's capital punishment law for charging Spirko with a crime carrying the death sentence: the murder occurred during a robbery, and Spirko had a previous murder conviction.

Forty-seven other offenders charged in 1983 with death penalty crimes had two or more factors - called specifications under Ohio law - but only 10 were sentenced to death.

Forty-two offenders charged in 1983 had only one specification, yet 10 of those were also sentenced to death.

In total, prosecutors charged 99 offenders in 1983 with crimes whose sentence could have resulted in execution, including Spirko and his co-defendant, Delaney Gibson, according to the first-ever study of capital cases by The Associated Press.

Some of those indictments included cases such as Spirko's in which the crime was committed in 1982.

Spirko, 59, says he did not abduct from work and stab to death Betty Jane Mottinger, a postmistress in Elgin.

The number of factors included in a possible death sentence case don't matter as much during the trial, when the issue is guilt or innocence, said Timothy Prichard, a senior deputy attorney general who oversees capital cases.

Instead, the specifications matter most during sentencing, but juries also consider other factors then, such as a bad childhood or mental illness, he said.

"You weigh those and the jury comes up with its conclusion individualized for this offender," Prichard said.

The AP analysis shows there's little validity to sentencing in Ohio, but the findings do not relate directly to the facts of his case, said Spirko's Washington, D.C.-based attorney William Hill.

"Our position is he's innocent of charges that bring him here to begin with," Hill said Monday.

Numerous offenders charged like Spirko with two specifications had far different outcomes.

In a Cuyahoga County case, for example, four people were charged with the April 1983 execution style shooting death of Pamela Mayer, 28, in Cleveland, during what was described as a drug deal gone bad.

Each of the four was charged with aggravated murder and two specifications: kidnapping and committing the murder during an aggravated robbery.

Three of the four accepted plea deals to escape possible death sentences; the fourth, Andrew Majoros, went to trial where a jury convicted him of the crime but sentenced him to 30 years to life in prison instead. Majoros died in prison in May 1999.

Jurors likely considered that Majoros, 38 at the time, would probably never leave prison even if they didn't sentence him to death, said Thomas Lobe, a former Cuyahoga County prosecutor who tried the case.

He also believes testimony of Majoros' children begging for his life played a role.

It's hard to say whether Spirko's case can be compared to others, since his prior murder is one of the most serious death penalty factors, said David McCord, a Drake University Law School professor who studies outcomes of capital cases.

More telling is that only 20 of the 99 capital cases resulted in death sentences in 1983, he said.

Of those, five offenders have been executed, six offenders have had their sentences overturned by federal courts or been allowed to seek new appeals and one offender died in prison.

"If only a very small percentage end up being executed, and it's not ones with the most specifications, that raises a very strong inference that the system is not operating rationally," McCord said.

Ohio has executed 16 men since 1999 and plans three executions this fall.