Saturday, 5 January 2008

DNA results cast more doubt on death row inmate's guilt

DNA results cast more doubt on death row inmate's guilt

Posted by Bob Paynter January 03, 2008 12:49PM

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 conducted.

State officials have had the results of those tests since just after Thanksgiving, The Plain Dealer learned this week. They are negative.

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 to proceed.

"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, Dailey said.

Any idea when a decision is likely?

"Before the 24th," he said.

See timeline of Spirko case

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