Governor saves Spirko from
By Jane Kahoun - The Plain Dealer
January 09, 2008
John Spirko will not be executed for the 1982
murder of Betty Jane Mottinger. But he'll never get out of prison,
Citing the lack of physical evidence in the 1982
murder and what he described as "slim residual doubt" about Spirko's
guilt, Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland said today that executing the death-row
inmate would be "inappropriate." Instead, Strickland commuted Spirko's
sentence to life in prison without parole.
Spirko attorney Tom Hill said today that Spirko was
relieved at the governor's decision to spare him from lethal injection.
But Hill, who as Spirko's lawyer has described the evidence of Spirko's
actual innocence as overwhelming, expressed disappointment that
Strickland did not pardon his client outright, or commute his sentence
to time already served and release him.
In his statement, Strickland noted that state and
federal courts had reviewed Spirko's case many times since 1984, when he
was convicted by a Van Wert County jury and sentenced to death.
Strickland said he found Spirko's claims of innocence as "unpersuasive
in the face of the judicial scrutiny" his conviction has received.
Van Wert County prosecutor Charles Kennedy, who was
not in office in 1984 but has been a strong proponent of Spirko's
execution, could not be reached for comment today.
DNA results cast more doubt on
death row inmate's guilt
By Karl Turner - The Plain Dealer
January 03, 2008
Since the fall of 2005, the Ohio Attorney
General's office has asked for and secured no fewer than seven
delays in the execution of death-row inmate John Spirko so that DNA
testing on evidence in the controversial, 25-year-old case could be
State officials have had the results of those tests
since just after Thanksgiving, The Plain Dealer learned this week. They
None of the biological evidence on items found at the
Elgin Post Office where Betty Jane Mottinger was kidnapped in August
1982 - or in the soybean field outside Findlay where her decomposed body
was found six weeks later - contains DNA belonging to Spirko.
Those results hardly prove that Spirko is innocent.
But stacked as they are on a steadily mounting pile of questions about
the credibility of the investigation, evidence and trial that condemned
him, they raise more doubt than ever before about whether Spirko had
anything to do with Mottinger's murder in the first place.
And yet, on Ohio's official calendar, Jan. 24 is
still execution day for the 61-year-old inmate. And state officials
haven't been able to decide what to do about it.
Spirko's attorneys have used the DNA results to argue
not just for clemency from execution, but for an outright release from
prison - either with or without the condition that Spirko be tried again
for the 1982 crime.
The evidence as it exists today "can lead only to the
conclusion that Mr. Spirko is an innocent man," attorney Tom Hill wrote
to the governor's office last month. "Mr. Spirko has already spent 25
long and hard years in prison ... for a crime he did not commit. He is
61 years old, and he cannot, and certainly should not, wait any longer
for this injustice to be addressed."
The argument has apparently placed Attorney General
Marc Dann and Gov. Ted Strickland in a ticklish situation - especially
considering that Spirko is hardly a choirboy. (On parole for an earlier
Kentucky murder, he was in a Toledo jail for felonious assault with a
shotgun when first implicated in the Mottinger case.)
Dann made the last two of seven Spirko reprieve
requests last year (the first five were made by his predecessor), noting
how important DNA testing could be in a case where the conviction and
death sentence were "totally dependent on circumstantial evidence."
But Leo Jennings, Dann's spokesman, said this week
that it's entirely up to Strickland to decide what to do with the new
information. Jennings said the attorney general has passed the DNA
results on to Strickland's office but has made no recommendation on how
"We haven't been asked for one and we haven't made
one," Jennings said.
Strickland granted the last two Spirko reprieves (the
first five were granted by former Gov. Bob Taft). The governor has made
no decision on the case, said spokesman Keith Dailey.
The governor's legal staff, told of the DNA results
in early December, is continuing its "thorough review" of the case,
Any idea when a decision is likely?
"Before the 24th," he said.
Timeline of the conviction and appeals of John
By Karl Turner - The Plain Dealer
January 03, 2008
August: Postmaster Betty Jane Mottinger kidnapped from the Elgin Post
Office and stabbed to death. Her decomposed body is found six weeks
later, wrapped in a painter's dropcloth, in a soybean field outside
August: John Spirko is convicted and sentenced to death for Mottinger's
murder. Case rested largely on testimony of Postal Inspector Paul
Hartman and an eyewitness, who said she was certain she saw Spirko's
best friend, Delaney Gibson Jr., in Elgin the morning of the crime.
August: First round of Spirko appeals ends when U.S. Supreme Court
declines to hear case.
Spirko attorneys renew appeal; sue state and federal government for
access to investigative files.
Hartman's files ordered opened; Spirko attorneys find never-before-disclosed
photos and statements placing Gibson hundreds of miles from Elgin the
night before the crime, undermining key prosecution testimony. Years-long
legal battle begins over significance of the new
May: Federal appeals-court panel upholds Spirko's conviction and
sentence by 2-1 vote, saying verdict rested primarily on what Spirko
purportedly told Hartman during series of jailhouse interviews in 1982.
January: The Plain Dealer publishes three-part series questioning case
and credibility of those interviews. Stories note that they were untaped,
full of lies and peppered with details that were either widely
circulated in the media, inconsistent with the facts or suggested by
Hartman. The investigator's notes had also apparently been embellished.
April: Hartman tells Spirko's attorneys that he knew
before the 1984 trial, and told prosecutors, that Gibson was nowhere
near Elgin the day of the crime - even though Gibson's alleged presence
was pivotal to the case. Within the previous year, Hartman had said the
same thing in taped interviews with a Mottinger family member and The
May: Spirko's appeals exhausted, the Ohio Supreme
Court sets an execution date for Sept. 20, 2005.
August: In urging the Ohio Parole Board against
recommending clemency for Spirko, a lawyer for then-Attorney General Jim
Petro misrepresents the evidence on several key points. Petro stands by
his staff, but suggests a second hearing to undo any damage.
September: Then-Gov. Bob Taft delays Spirko's
execution until Nov. 19. After an unprecedented, second hearing, parole
board votes 6-3 against clemency, with the three expressing serious
doubts about Spirko's guilt. They questioned the quality of the evidence,
the fairness of the prosecution and the credibility of Hartman, Spirko's
November: Petro asks for, and gets, a second three-month
reprieve for Spirko, until Jan. 19, 2006, so that evidence could be
subjected to modern DNA testing.
Spirko is granted reprieves in January (until July 19), June (until Nov.
29) and again in October, setting a new execution date for April 17,
2007. That places Spirko's fate in the hands of what would be a new
attorney general and a new governor.
Gov. Ted Strickland orders reprieves No. 6 in March (until Sept. 18) and
No. 7 in July so that DNA testing first ordered in late 2005 might be
completed. That seventh reprieve set Spirko's execution date for Jan.
John Spirko was sentenced to
die in 1984 for the murder of Elgin postmaster Betty Jane Mottinger.
Spirko, 58, claims that the state's
case against him was weakened when charges against his co-defendant were
dropped last year. He also says prosecutors withheld key evidence and
presented a false case.
An important element of the Van Wert
County prosecutor's case was a witness who said she recognized co-defendant
Delaney Gibson, a friend of Spirko, near the Elgin post office the day
that Betty Mottinger disappeared.
No physical evidence tied Spirko to
the murder. He was convicted of the killing based largely on his
statements to police and the testimony of the eyewitness who said she
had seen Gibson near the post office.
Prosecutors had alleged that Spirko
participated in the kidnapping and killing of Mottinger with Gibson.
Prosecutors never told the jury or defense that they had evidence before
the trial that Gibson was with family in North Carolina, hundreds of
miles from Elgin, the night before the crime.
Recently, Spirko's lawyers said
evidence had surfaced that a key investigator told the prosecutor before
the 1984 trial that Gibson wasn't involved in the murder, but that the
prosecutor used the Gibson allegations against Spirko anyway. The
prosecutor has denied this.
Earlier this year, U.S. District Judge
James Carr of Toledo authorized Spirko's lawyers to investigate that
evidence further. Gibson was never tried in the Mottinger case. Capital
murder charges against him were dismissed last year.
Spirko, born in Toledo, was paroled in
Kentucky in 1982 for a separate murder. He returned to Swanton to live
with his sister. He was soon jailed there on an unrelated assault charge,
a parole violation.
Spirko's attorneys argued he is
sitting on death row because he lied to investigators about having
information about the unsolved Mottinger murder.
Spirko has maintained he wanted to
trade false information for leniency for himself on the assault charge
as well as for his girlfriend, who had been charged with helping him to
attempt a prison escape. Although investigators dismissed much of what
he told them, they latched onto Spirko's connection with Gibson and
several details they said could come only from the killer.
These details included: 1) the
location of the stab wounds in Ms. Mottinger’s body; 2) a description of
Ms. Mottinger’s clothing; 3) knowledge that a stone had been pried from
a ring worn by Ms. Mottinger; 4) a description of the ring; 5) the type
of shroud and specific method used to enwrap Ms. Mottinger’s body after
her death; 6) a description of Ms. Mottinger’s purse into which the
perpetrators placed the fruits of the Post Office robbery; and 7) a
description of what was stolen in that robbery.
On October 28, 2004 and November 16,
2004, Spirko filed an application for DNA testing in the trial court.
Spirko requested DNA testing on “blood or other evidence received from
the person of the deceased, Betty Mottinger, or from physical evidence
recovered from the area where the body was discovered including blood
evidence on tarp and boots.”
On March 10, 2005, the trial court
denied Spirko’s request for DNA testing. In doing so, the trial court
noted the following: 1) There was no biological material found at the
site of the abduction; 2) At trial it was never claimed that any of the
blood found on or in the area of the victim’s remains was the
defendant’s; and 3) As to the boots, it was conceded by the prosecution
at trial that it could have been Spirko’s blood on the boots. Thus, the
trial court concluded that DNA testing could not exonerate Spirko.
In September, Gov. Bob Taft delayed
Spirko's execution to allow for a second parole board hearing. Taft
ordered the execution delayed from Sept. 20 until Nov. 15 to allow for
Gov. Bob Taft on Monday
delayed the execution of a condemned killer who says he's innocent, the
second time in two months Taft ordered a delay in a case nagged by
questions over evidence. Taft granted John Spirko a 60-day reprieve at
the request of Attorney General Jim Petro, who says he needs that long
to test several items that Spirko's attorneys want reviewed.
Petro informed Taft and Spirko's
attorneys in letters Monday about his willingness to conduct the testing
and his request for the 60-day reprieve. "I am a proponent of DNA
technology," Petro said in the two-page letter to Thomas Hill, a
Washington, D.C.-based attorney representing Spirko. "It is important to
accommodate the use of DNA testing where practical and feasible."
Petro, a Republican running for
governor next year, said he does not believe the testing will be able to
prove either Spirko's innocence or his guilt. "Notwithstanding, I
believe that to the extent possible, all information should be made
available for the parties, courts, and the Governor to use for what
purpose they feel necessary," Petro said.
Spirko was scheduled to die by
injection Nov. 15 for the 1982 killing of Betty Jane Mottinger, 48, the
postmistress in Elgin in northwest Ohio. She was abducted and repeatedly
stabbed, then wrapped in a tarp and dumped in a field. Her body was
found three weeks later.
Spirko, 59, was convicted on the basis
of witness' statements and his own comments to investigators. No
physical evidence linked him to the crime.
Authorities say he described details
only someone at the scene of the crime could know. Spirko says he got
the details from media reports and used the information to make a deal
with authorities to gain the release of a girlfriend, who was held on an
unrelated crime. Spirko sued in federal court last Wednesday to require
the testing of the tarp, a cement block found near Mottinger's body and
duct tape wrapped around her, among other items.
On Sept. 8, Taft delayed Spirko's
scheduled Sept. 20 execution to look into whether prosecutors presented
inaccurate information at a clemency hearing in August.
In response, the Ohio Parole Board
granted an unprecedented second clemency hearing for Spirko, and on Oct.
19 voted 6-3 to recommend that Taft allow the execution to proceed. The
majority said the claims of new evidence weren't enough to merit
The delay is encouraging, said Alvin
Dunn, an attorney also representing Spirko. "We're looking forward to
having this completed and believe it will demonstrate that our client
had nothing to do with this crime," Dunn said Monday.
The tarp is important to Spirko's case
because of a house painter who maintains his former boss on a painting
crew is the real killer. The house painter, John Willier, passed a lie
detector test last month as he repeated a 1997 statement accusing his
boss, who is now in a Louisiana prison.
Spirko's attorneys say Willier told
investigators in 1984 that the paint-splattered tarp Mottinger's body
was wrapped in was the one his crew was using. Chemical tests matched
the paint to houses the crew worked on. In past court filings, Spirko's
attorneys also questioned prosecutors' attempt to link Spirko to the
crime through a friend.
Prosecutors alleged the friend,
Delaney Gibson, was seen near the post office the day Mottinger was
abducted. But Spirko's attorneys say photographs and other evidence
place Gibson with a full beard in North Carolina the day before.
Witnesses say the man they saw at the post office was clean shaven.
Last year, prosecutors dropped death
penalty charges against Gibson in connection with Mottinger's death,
saying the case against Gibson was too old.
Convicted Killer To Be Executed
May 25, 2005
The Ohio Supreme Court on Wednesday set a Sept. 20
execution date for one of the state's longest-serving death row inmates,
a man who maintains he's innocent of the murder of a postal worker.
John Spirko was sentenced to die for the 1982 murder
of Elgin postmistress Betty Jane Mottinger, but says he didn't do it.
Spirko claims the state's case against him was
weakened when death penalty charges against his co-defendant were
dropped last year. He also says prosecutors withheld key evidence and
presented a false case.
The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Spirko's
appeal in March. The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld
Spirko's conviction and death sentence.
An important element of the Van Wert County
prosecutor's case was a witness who recognized co-defendant Delaney
Gibson, a friend of Spirko, near the Elgin post office in northwest Ohio
the day that Mottinger disappeared.
No physical evidence tied Spirko to the murder. He
was convicted of the killing based largely on his statements to police
and the testimony of the eyewitness who had seen Gibson near the post
office. Prosecutors had alleged that Spirko participated in the
kidnapping and killing of Mottinger along with Gibson.
In an appeal, Spirko's lawyers argued that Gibson
could not have kidnapped Mottinger because he was eight hours away in
Asheville, N.C., the night before the woman disappeared.
The Van Wert County prosecutor dismissed charges
against Gibson on May 17, 2004, the same day the 6th Circuit upheld
Spirko's death sentence.
Spirko, 58, was sentenced in September 1984, and is
the ninth-longest serving member of death row, which held 193 men and
one woman as of Wednesday.
Spirko contacted police in October 1982 and offered
to trade information about Mottinger's death in exchange for help on
unrelated assault charges. Police said Spirko told them details of the
killing that the public could not have known, but Spirko's lawyers said
that information could have come from secondhand repetition rather than
Spirko has asked U.S. District Judge James Carr in
Toledo to review allegations raised by statements Spirko made to a
postal investigator. Spirko's attorneys say the statements are full of
"We are deeply concerned by these allegations,"
Spirko's Washington, D.C., attorney Thomas Hill said Wednesday. "We are
equally concerned that the Ohio Supreme Court would go ahead and set a
date knowing these matters were pending before a United States federal
The issues are old and Carr has overruled them before,
said Jim Canepa, the state's chief deputy attorney general of criminal
The only question is who the accomplice might be, not
Spirko's involvement, Canepa said.
"All the swirlings about in recent litigation deal
with who was the second person. In my mind, it's a red herring," he said
Wednesday. "Irregardless of who else is involved, Spirko's conviction is