Few expect execution delay to echo beyond one case

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Gov. Bob Taft's decision to delay an execution, while a victory for death penalty opponents, isn't seen as signaling a change in the state's approach to capital punishment.

Taft last week postponed for two months the Sept. 20 execution of John Spirko, who was convicted of killing a village postmistress in 1982, over questions of whether prosecutors presented inaccurate information at his clemency hearing.

At best, ''maybe there's sort of a warning here that, 'Make sure what we say in these hearings is accurate,''' said Victor Streib, an Ohio Northern University law professor and capital punishment expert.

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For the most part, say Streib and both proponents and opponents of capital punishment, the factors behind Taft's decision are too closely related to Spirko's case to have broader impact.

Such delays in executions aren't uncommon in Ohio and other states. Last-minute court rulings have regularly pushed executions back a few hours or weeks or years.

What was significant in Spirko's case was the delay came through Taft, the only individual under Ohio law able to halt - permanently or otherwise - an execution.

As he always does in death penalty cases, Taft, a Republican, followed the lead of the Ohio Parole Board, which asked for the delay.

Ohio has put 16 men to death since resuming executions in 1999. In a 17th case, the parole board recommended setting aside the sentence of Jerome Campbell of Cincinnati over concerns about evidence presented to jurors.

Spirko's delay could reduce the state's credibility in future clemency hearings, said Douglas Berman, an Ohio State University criminal law professor.

''It will not only lead the parole board and maybe even the governor to be suspicious of the evidence they get from the attorney general, but will provide lots of fodder for defense attorneys to say over and over again, 'Well, I know the prosecutors say that, but they said that kind of stuff before and they were not playing above board,''' Berman said.

But State Public Defender David Bodiker, who makes his living trying to stop executions, doubts Taft's decision will echo beyond Spirko.

''In this instance they were really correcting an obvious problem that occurred during the clemency hearing, and I don't think it kind of spells a different attitude,'' he said.

The delay occurred after The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer reported that Timothy Prichard, director of the attorney general's capital crimes office, made false statements and mischaracterized evidence regarding what Spirko knew about the murder of Betty Jane Mottinger, 48, and his whereabouts on the day of the killing.

On Aug. 23, Prichard told the parole board that a description of Mottinger's purse had to have come from Spirko because investigators didn't know what the missing purse looked like. But according to the case record, Mottinger's husband earlier gave an investigator a very similar description of the purse.

Attorney General Jim Petro stands by Prichard's presentation but said any capital case deserves the closest possible review, including in this case another clemency hearing, said spokeswoman Kim Norris.

Taft, 63, nearing the end of his second four-year term, views clemency as a chance to plead for mercy and present new facts, a spokesman said. Taft does not predict any lasting impact from his temporary Spirko reprieve.

''The governor reviews each case personally to ensure that justice has been served,'' said spokesman Mark Rickel. ''He takes many factors into consideration, including the parole board's recommendations, before making a final decision.''

Andrew Welsh-Huggins is a statehouse correspondent for the Ohio Associated Press' Columbus bureau.