U.S. judge rejects death-row appeal

Spirko's execution scheduled in 2 weeks

Wednesday, September 07, 2005
Sandra Livingston
Plain Dealer Reporter

A federal judge in Toledo has refused to reopen the case of death-row inmate John Spirko, who is now just two weeks from execution for a murder that some legal experts believe he may not have committed.

U.S. District Judge James Carr rejected Spirko's arguments that the state used fraud to thwart an earlier appeal and he declined to stop the execution.

Carr found no misconduct by the state and said that issues raised by Spirko's lawyers would not have led him to a different decision in 2000 when he first rejected a Spirko appeal.

Spirko's options are dwindling as he faces a Sept. 20 execution for the 1982 slaying of Betty Jane Mottinger, a postmaster in the tiny Ohio town of Elgin.

His fate now rests in the hands of Gov. Bob Taft.

Taft is reviewing a recommendation from the Ohio Parole Board that he deny clemency.

Spirko's lawyers said they were disappointed by Carr's ruling. They can appeal to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, but that's one of several appeals courts that have rejected Spirko's claims over the past 20 years.

Meanwhile, Spirko's lawyers continued their fight at the state level. On Tuesday they asked the Ohio Supreme Court to delay the execution to allow the Parole Board to reconsider its recommendation because of misstatements about the evidence by a senior deputy Ohio attorney general during a clemency hearing last month.

In a letter to the board on Friday Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro said he did not believe there was any attempt to deceive. While saying he stood by his lawyers' presentation, Petro offered to revisit the case and have his lawyers participate in a full rehearing if necessary.

Spirko's lawyers have asked the board to accept Petro's offer and hear the case again. A spokesman said Tuesday the board is exploring its options.

In a written statement Tuesday, Petro said Carr's ruling capped another opportunity for Spirko to air his latest claims. "And, once again, the court reaffirmed that he was justly convicted and sentenced."

Concerns about the quality of the evidence have been raised by a former FBI director, former judges and a national expert on wrongful convictions. But Carr agreed with the state that Spirko provided details about the crime that had not been publicly reported. And he said recent questions about the credibility of the lead investigator cannot be used now to cast doubt on previous court proceedings.

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:

slivings@plaind.com, 216-999-4453