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January 9, 2008

Notable (split-the-difference?) capital commutation in Ohio

As detailed in this news report, Ohio death row defendant "John Spirko will not be executed for the 1982 murder of Betty Jane Mottinger. But he'll never get out of prison, either."  Here more from the news report:

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.

Governor Strickland's statement in support of this commutation is available at this link.  Here are key passages from that statement:

John Spirko was convicted, by a jury, of a heinous murder.  At times, when he wasn't denying having committed the murder, he appears to have admitted doing so.  Ohio and federal trial, appellate and supreme courts reviewed his conviction and upheld it.  Alibi claims and claims regarding evidentiary weaknesses, including more recently developed theories and interpretations of evidence, were considered by those courts and rejected.  In addition, Governor Taft and I granted Mr. Spirko, collectively, seven reprieves to allow for the analysis of DNA related to the case.  Once completed, these DNA tests neither exonerated Mr. Spirko nor implicated him or anyone else....

Nonetheless, I have concluded that the lack of physical evidence linking him to the murder, as well as the slim residual doubt about his responsibility for the murder that arises from careful scrutiny of the case record and revelations about the case over the past 20 years, makes the imposition of the death penalty inappropriate in this case....

Based on [my] review, I have decided to commute Mr. Spirko's sentence to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

So, apparently my state's Governor is not convinced Spirko was wrongly convicted.  And yet, Gov. Strickland was concerned enough about his guilt that he does not want the state of Ohio to carry out the sentence a jury imposed and that numerous courts have affirmed.  And yet, despite these concerns about guilt, the Governor believe he should sentence Spirko to spending the rest of his days on earth confined to a small cage.

For a host of political reasons, I understand Gov. Strickland's interest in splitting the difference here.  If Spirko is in fact innocent, this commutation is a grave injustice to him; if Spirko is in fact guilty, this commutation is a grave injustice to the victims of his crime and the legal system.  So, I am not sure if Solomon would be proud of embarrassed by such a baby-splitting decision.

January 9, 2008 at 05:05 PM | Permalink


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Here is a statement by John Spirko's attys with some important detail about what was presented to Gov. Strickland ahead of today's commutation...

John Spirko is an innocent man who has spent 25 very long and hard years in prison -- 23 on death row -- for a crime he did not commit. There can be no joy in the commutation of an innocent man's sentence to life without parole. The positive thing about Governor Strickland's commutation is that the State will now not execute an innocent man and that we can, and will, continue to fight for Mr. Spirko's complete exoneration and release.

We had told Governor Strickland that Mr. Spirko was prepared to waive all his constitutional rights to allow the Van Wert County Prosecutor to again try him and seek the death penalty in a fair and honest trial -- not the trial he got in 1984, filled as it was with false evidence and a false theory of the case. All Mr. Spirko has ever asked for was to be judged fairly and honestly. We all now know that there is absolutely not one shred of evidence -- physical, forensic or otherwise -- linking Mr. Spirko to this crime. The recent DNA and fingerprint results for which we waited more than two years confirm that Mr. Spirko was not present at the crime scenes. Objectively corroborated evidence confirms that Mr. Spirko was meeting in Toledo with his parole officer at the very time this crime was being committed in Elgin, 100 miles away.

We will continue to urge Governor Strickland and Attorney General Dann to review Mr. Spirko's claims of actual innocence so that justice will be served by Mr. Spirko's release from prison and by finally prosecuting those actually responsible for Mrs. Mottinger's murder.

Tom Hill
Alvin Dunn

Posted by: Scott Taylor | Jan 9, 2008 5:56:58 PM

Doug, Strickland's standard is the same as Gov. Keating's, and it is not "baby-splitting", just a view that if the governor is not convinced beyond all doubt, then he shouldn't let the execution proceed. I do not share that view, but I think it eminently reasonable.

Don't feel too bad for Spirko. He got light treatment for an earlier murder.

Posted by: federalist | Jan 9, 2008 6:28:47 PM

Commutation to LWOP can be an appropriate executive response in a "residual doubt" case, for reasons explained
at Crime & Consequences.

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Jan 9, 2008 8:12:33 PM

The principle of law is clear -
No-one should be found guilty if there is reasonable doubt. Since the Governor has admitted there is reasonable (residual) doubt, John Spirko should be freed.
Strickland and others are guilty of undermining the basic principles law - once again for political motives, NOT in the interests of the application of law and justice.
As for federalists comment that he "got off lightly for an earlier crime" - if he is now probably innocent of the current charge, the law has no business regarding any previous legal decision. There is no regard for human life here - just a grotesque game of words. Why is it so hard for people of power to fully admit a mistake? There is never justice in the loss of liberty when crime is unproven beyond reasonable doubt. Trying to nuance that term for political motive is unforgivable.

Posted by: peter | Jan 10, 2008 4:27:31 AM

The governor corrected a sentencing error (the DP was unjustified in his view) and what is so bad about that?

Posted by: John Neff | Jan 10, 2008 10:19:21 AM

The sentence for "innocent under the law" is now to be LWOP is it?
The Governor has no moral right, in this instance where at best the conviction relies on tenuous circumstantial evidence, to deprive a man of all prospect of release from prison. Having already served 25 years in such circumstances, the man should have been freed. This is another example of the failure of the judicial system to admit error, and of the political cowardice of a Governor to fully correct this.

Posted by: peter | Jan 10, 2008 11:13:02 AM

The point I made about not feeling too bad for Spirko is not a legal one. I don't feel bad for him--at all. He is a murderer who put himself in the line of fire in a murder investigation.

I don't think mobsters ought to be murdered either, but I don't lose sleep when they are. If Spirko is innocent, then he should be let go--unfortunately for him, he was convicted, and exhuastive court reviews have determined that there was enought evidence to convict--that means he needs to stay in jail. He is not innocent under the law.

Posted by: federalist | Jan 10, 2008 11:36:27 AM

"If Spirko is innocent, then he should be let go--unfortunately for him, he was convicted, and exhuastive court reviews have determined that there was enought evidence to convict--that means he needs to stay in jail."

Very good federlist. So now we should keep an innocent person in prison because "unfortunately for him, he was convicted"? Great system you've got here. I would say that I hope this never happens to you, or to someone you care about, but that would be a lie. I hope it does, and soon.

Posted by: | Jan 10, 2008 7:01:13 PM

Well, I hope I am never wrongfully convicted either, and I don't think that my post has earned your calumny.

I don't feel sorry for Spirko, for the reasons stated above. What's important here is that courts and the governor have reviewed all of the evidence, and have concluded that Spirko hasn't shown enough to overcome his conviction. And let's get real--you cannot be certain that Spirko is innocent, so your statement that I am supporting the incarceration of an innocent man is completely without basis. If and when he is proven to be innocent (or the evidence in the case against him falls to nothing), then I would say that he has to be let go. But only then. And that's why I am saying that he should stay in jail.

Personally, I think that Spirko should have been executed. I say that without knowing the record as well as I presume Gov. Strickland does. So my opinion is likely not as valid as the Governor's.

Posted by: federalist | Jan 10, 2008 7:43:01 PM

"And let's get real--you cannot be certain that Spirko is innocent, so your statement that I am supporting the incarceration of an innocent man is completely without basis."

No. My "speculation" was based on the your statement: "If Spirko is innocent, then he should be let go--unfortunately for him, he was convicted, and exhuastive court reviews have determined that there was enought evidence to convict--that means he needs to stay in jail."

Thus, it appears that you care more about whether he was convicted and about whether he's had reviews than about whether he's actually, factually innocent. And I'm saying that the above scenario could happen to anyone.

Posted by: Anon | Jan 11, 2008 4:15:45 PM

The point, Anon, is that Spirko has been convicted. The question is how, BASED ON FACTS WE KNOW NOW, certain or uncertain his conviction is. Who knows? It certainly is possible that Spirko is innocent--but we don't let convicted killers out simply because it's possible that they didn't do it--else we'd have a lot of murderers out on the street.

In any event, Anon, I simply put, in plain terms, the standard convicts have to meet when trying to undo their convictions on innocence grounds, and I have an idiot like you wishing bad things to happen to someone I care about.

Posted by: federalist | Jan 12, 2008 11:59:37 AM

I'm very interested in this matter and I myself do alot of research as well. Either way it was a well thought out and nice read so I figured I would leave you a comment.

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