Associated Press

John Spirko might have been convicted largely because of lies he told authorities, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
Flaws riddle Ohio death penalty case
Guilt doubted in ’82 Van Wert slaying

By Associated Press
January 30, 2005

CLEVELAND – A man sent to death row 20 years ago for killing a village postmaster might have been convicted largely because of lies he told authorities, according to an investigation by the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

In a months-long review, the newspaper examined thousands of pages of court and investigative documents in the case of John Spirko, who likely faces execution this year for the murder of Betty Jane Mottinger, 48.

Mottinger disappeared Aug. 9, 1982, from the post office in Elgin, Van Wert County a town of 96 residents 18 miles from the Indiana line. Her body was found a month later in a soybean field 50 miles away, wrapped in a paint-splattered curtain. She had been stabbed more than a dozen times.

Spirko contacted police in October 1982, offering to trade information about her death in exchange for help on unrelated assault charges he was facing in Lucas County. He was sentenced to death in 1984, convicted of aggravated murder, kidnapping and assault.

Investigators found no physical evidence linking Spirko to the crime. They based the case on Spirko’s statements and the testimony of an eyewitness.

The Plain Dealer reported that there are many inconsistencies between what Spirko told investigators and the facts of the case:

•Spirko told Postal Inspector Paul Hartman that Mottinger’s hands were bound behind her back with duct tape when she was killed. But her hands were not bound when her body was found.

•Twice he told investigators that Mottinger had been stabbed in the back. Investigators found no evidence of wounds to her back.

•Spirko said he saw items stolen from the post office during the abduction but knew nothing about $700 worth of stamps that were taken. Spirko told Hartman at least twice that he never saw any stamps among the stolen items.

•Spirko told Hartman that Mottinger was wearing a gold watch and a gold necklace when she was killed and that he had seen both in the bag of loot. But in their testimony, Mottinger’s family and a co-worker did not recall her wearing either.

Spirko said he kept feeding Hartman new versions of the story of Mottinger’s murder because “he wouldn’t settle for nothin’ else. I would tell him one story and … the next day, he would come back for another story. And the more I told the more deeper I got into it, you know.”

Hartman, who retired in 2000 after nearly three decades in law enforcement, said he remains certain that Spirko deserves to die for killing Mottinger.

“It is my belief that he did it,” Hartman told the newspaper. “If and when they execute him, I will have no qualms. No qualms.”

Spirko says he’s not guilty, but acknowledges that he lived a life of crime that leaves him virtually without credibility.

“I’m convictable,” the 58-year-old said.

The key witness in the case was Elgin resident Opal Seibert, who testified she saw Spirko’s former cellmate, Delaney Gibson Jr., outside the post office the morning Mottinger disappeared.

Spirko’s attorney Thomas Hill argues that Gibson was vacationing in Asheville, N.C., as late as 6 p.m. the night before Mottinger’s murder. Asheville is about 500 miles from Elgin, or about an eight-hour drive.

Hill said authorities had photographs of Gibson with a full beard on Aug. 7 and Aug. 8; the man Seibert saw was clean shaven.

Spirko and his lawyers first saw the Gibson vacation photos in 1997, after years of litigation, the newspaper reported. It’s unclear whether the Van Wert County prosecutor at the time, Stephen Keister, ever saw them.

Keister, who left office in 1988, declined to discuss any aspect of the Spirko case.

“My memory is fading. And a lot of things have been over the dam,” he said.

Gibson was never prosecuted in the Mottinger case. In May, the same day a federal appeals court denied Spirko’s next-to-last appeal, Van Wert County authorities dismissed the kidnapping and aggravated murder charges against Gibson.

Spirko’s attorneys filed what is likely to be his final appeal this month, arguing that prosecutors withheld key evidence and presented a false case. Attorneys for the state of Ohio have 30 days to respond.

At least 116 inmates condemned to die by U.S. courts have been exonerated based on new evidence since capital punishment was reinstated in the mid-1970s, according to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C.

No execution date has been set. Gov. Bob Taft could recommend clemency for Spirko before the sentence is carried out.

Although insisting he was not guilty, Spirko asked the jury to recommend the death penalty.

“From what I have heard, a lady that went to work, bothered no one, had a family, a husband that loved her, she was cruelly taken away, brutally murdered. She didn’t get no appeal. … But she deserved justice, and if that means me, then that’s the way it should be. I’m convicted, I should die. It’s simple; simple arithmetic.”

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