January 09, 2008
By Andrew Welsh-Huggins, The Associated Press
Gov. Ted Strickland today commuted to life in prison the death sentence of a man who faced execution later this month in the killing of an Ohio postmistress.
Strickland based his decision on the lack of physical evidence linking John Spirko to the 26-year-old murder and ''the slim residual doubt'' about Spirko's responsibility for the slaying based on a careful study of the case.
Those factors make ''the imposition of the death penalty inappropriate in this case,'' Strickland said.
On Thursday, the attorney general's office said it had concluded that no DNA evidence links Spirko to the 1982 killing of Betty Jane Mottinger in northwest Ohio.
Although Strickland spared Spirko, he rejected several alternatives suggested by Spirko's attorneys that would have freed their client.
Attorneys had asked for a full pardon, a conditional pardon or a commutation to time served, all of which would have allowed Spirko to be released.
Strickland said state and federal courts reviewed and upheld Spirko's conviction and the Ohio Parole Board twice rejected his petition for clemency. Under the commutation order, Spirko will not be eligible for parole.
''At times, when he wasn't denying having committed the murder, he appears to have admitted doing so,'' Strickland said. ''Spirko's claims that his own lies led to his conviction for an offense that he did not commit are unpersuasive in the face of the judicial scrutiny this case has received.''
Spirko's attorneys said they were disappointed that Strickland did not free Spirko.
''There can be no joy in the commutation of an innocent man's sentence to life without parole,'' Washington, D.C.-based lawyers Tom Hill and Alvin Dunn said in a statement.
''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,'' the statement said.
Spirko, 61, is the second death row inmate in a week to avoid execution after a long legal struggle. On Monday, U.S.-British citizen Ken Richey, 43, entered a plea deal in a northwest Ohio court that allowed him to accept a sentence of time already served and leave the United States. The agreement comes after an appeals court overturned Richey's 1987 death sentence last year.
Spirko also is the second death row inmate whose sentence was commuted to life in prison under the state's new death penalty law, which went into effect in 1981. In 2003, Gov. Bob Taft commuted the sentence of Jerome Campbell of Cincinnati because of concerns about evidence presented at Campbell's trial.
Spirko was convicted based on his comments to investigators and witness statements.
Charges against a co-defendant who linked him to the murder have been dropped.
Courts at all levels have previously upheld Spirko's conviction and death sentence.
He received seven reprieves while the DNA testing was conducted, a record under the state's current death penalty law.
Last year, Strickland denied clemency requests by three inmates, two of whom were executed. A third, Kenneth Biros, had his execution delayed by the U.S. Supreme Court to allow him to pursue a lawsuit challenging lethal injection as unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment.
Strickland, a Democrat, is a death penalty supporter but has said he is conscious of the numerous examples of exoneration through DNA testing around the country.