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John George SPIRKO Jr.





Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Kidnapping - Robbery
Number of victims: 2
Date of murders: July 3, 1969 / August 9, 1982
Date of birth: June 13, 1946
Victims profile: Myra Ashcraft, 73 / Betty Jane Mottinger, 48
Method of murder: Strangulation / Stabbing with knife
Location: Kentucky/Ohio, USA
Status: Sentenced to life in prison in Kentucky in 1970. Paroled 1982. Sentenced to death in Ohio in September 1984. Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland commuted Spirko's sentence to life in prison without parole in January 2008

photo gallery


clemency report


Governor saves Spirko from execution

By Jane Kahoun - The Plain Dealer

January 09, 2008

John Spirko will not be executed for the 1982 murder of Betty Jane Mottinger. But he'll never get out of prison, either.

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.

In his statement, Strickland noted that state and federal courts had reviewed Spirko's case many times since 1984, when he was convicted by a Van Wert County jury and sentenced to death. Strickland said he found Spirko's claims of innocence as "unpersuasive in the face of the judicial scrutiny" his conviction has received.

Van Wert County prosecutor Charles Kennedy, who was not in office in 1984 but has been a strong proponent of Spirko's execution, could not be reached for comment today.


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

By Karl Turner - The Plain Dealer

January 03, 2008

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.


Timeline of the conviction and appeals of John Spirko

By Karl Turner - The Plain Dealer

January 03, 2008

August: Postmaster Betty Jane Mottinger kidnapped from the Elgin Post Office and stabbed to death. Her decomposed body is found six weeks later, wrapped in a painter's dropcloth, in a soybean field outside Findlay.

August: John Spirko is convicted and sentenced to death for Mottinger's murder. Case rested largely on testimony of Postal Inspector Paul Hartman and an eyewitness, who said she was certain she saw Spirko's best friend, Delaney Gibson Jr., in Elgin the morning of the crime.

August: First round of Spirko appeals ends when U.S. Supreme Court declines to hear case.

Spirko attorneys renew appeal; sue state and federal government for access to investigative files.

Hartman's files ordered opened; Spirko attorneys find never-before-disclosed photos and statements placing Gibson hundreds of miles from Elgin the night before the crime, undermining key prosecution testimony. Years-long legal battle begins over significance of the new

May: Federal appeals-court panel upholds Spirko's conviction and sentence by 2-1 vote, saying verdict rested primarily on what Spirko purportedly told Hartman during series of jailhouse interviews in 1982.

January: The Plain Dealer publishes three-part series questioning case and credibility of those interviews. Stories note that they were untaped, full of lies and peppered with details that were either widely circulated in the media, inconsistent with the facts or suggested by Hartman. The investigator's notes had also apparently been embellished.

April: Hartman tells Spirko's attorneys that he knew before the 1984 trial, and told prosecutors, that Gibson was nowhere near Elgin the day of the crime - even though Gibson's alleged presence was pivotal to the case. Within the previous year, Hartman had said the same thing in taped interviews with a Mottinger family member and The Plain Dealer.

May: Spirko's appeals exhausted, the Ohio Supreme Court sets an execution date for Sept. 20, 2005.

August: In urging the Ohio Parole Board against recommending clemency for Spirko, a lawyer for then-Attorney General Jim Petro misrepresents the evidence on several key points. Petro stands by his staff, but suggests a second hearing to undo any damage.

September: Then-Gov. Bob Taft delays Spirko's execution until Nov. 19. After an unprecedented, second hearing, parole board votes 6-3 against clemency, with the three expressing serious doubts about Spirko's guilt. They questioned the quality of the evidence, the fairness of the prosecution and the credibility of Hartman, Spirko's primary accuser.

November: Petro asks for, and gets, a second three-month reprieve for Spirko, until Jan. 19, 2006, so that evidence could be subjected to modern DNA testing.

Spirko is granted reprieves in January (until July 19), June (until Nov. 29) and again in October, setting a new execution date for April 17, 2007. That places Spirko's fate in the hands of what would be a new attorney general and a new governor.

Gov. Ted Strickland orders reprieves No. 6 in March (until Sept. 18) and No. 7 in July so that DNA testing first ordered in late 2005 might be completed. That seventh reprieve set Spirko's execution date for Jan. 24.


John Spirko

John Spirko was sentenced to die in 1984 for the murder of Elgin postmaster Betty Jane Mottinger.

Spirko, 58, claims that the state's case against him was weakened when charges against his co-defendant were dropped last year. He also says prosecutors withheld key evidence and presented a false case.

An important element of the Van Wert County prosecutor's case was a witness who said she recognized co-defendant Delaney Gibson, a friend of Spirko, near the Elgin post office the day that Betty Mottinger disappeared.

No physical evidence tied Spirko to the murder. He was convicted of the killing based largely on his statements to police and the testimony of the eyewitness who said she had seen Gibson near the post office.

Prosecutors had alleged that Spirko participated in the kidnapping and killing of Mottinger with Gibson. Prosecutors never told the jury or defense that they had evidence before the trial that Gibson was with family in North Carolina, hundreds of miles from Elgin, the night before the crime.

Recently, Spirko's lawyers said evidence had surfaced that a key investigator told the prosecutor before the 1984 trial that Gibson wasn't involved in the murder, but that the prosecutor used the Gibson allegations against Spirko anyway. The prosecutor has denied this.

Earlier this year, U.S. District Judge James Carr of Toledo authorized Spirko's lawyers to investigate that evidence further. Gibson was never tried in the Mottinger case. Capital murder charges against him were dismissed last year. 

Spirko, born in Toledo, was paroled in Kentucky in 1982 for a separate murder. He returned to Swanton to live with his sister. He was soon jailed there on an unrelated assault charge, a parole violation.

Spirko's attorneys argued he is sitting on death row because he lied to investigators about having information about the unsolved Mottinger murder.

Spirko has maintained he wanted to trade false information for leniency for himself on the assault charge as well as for his girlfriend, who had been charged with helping him to attempt a prison escape. Although investigators dismissed much of what he told them, they latched onto Spirko's connection with Gibson and several details they said could come only from the killer.

These details included: 1) the location of the stab wounds in Ms. Mottinger’s body; 2) a description of Ms. Mottinger’s clothing; 3) knowledge that a stone had been pried from a ring worn by Ms. Mottinger; 4) a description of the ring; 5) the type of shroud and specific method used to enwrap Ms. Mottinger’s body after her death; 6) a description of Ms. Mottinger’s purse into which the perpetrators placed the fruits of the Post Office robbery; and 7) a description of what was stolen in that robbery.

On October 28, 2004 and November 16, 2004, Spirko filed an application for DNA testing in the trial court. Spirko requested DNA testing on “blood or other evidence received from the person of the deceased, Betty Mottinger, or from physical evidence recovered from the area where the body was discovered including blood evidence on tarp and boots.”

On March 10, 2005, the trial court denied Spirko’s request for DNA testing. In doing so, the trial court noted the following: 1) There was no biological material found at the site of the abduction; 2) At trial it was never claimed that any of the blood found on or in the area of the victim’s remains was the defendant’s; and 3) As to the boots, it was conceded by the prosecution at trial that it could have been Spirko’s blood on the boots. Thus, the trial court concluded that DNA testing could not exonerate Spirko.

In September, Gov. Bob Taft delayed Spirko's execution to allow for a second parole board hearing. Taft ordered the execution delayed from Sept. 20 until Nov. 15 to allow for the hearing.


Gov. Bob Taft on Monday delayed the execution of a condemned killer who says he's innocent, the second time in two months Taft ordered a delay in a case nagged by questions over evidence. Taft granted John Spirko a 60-day reprieve at the request of Attorney General Jim Petro, who says he needs that long to test several items that Spirko's attorneys want reviewed.

Petro informed Taft and Spirko's attorneys in letters Monday about his willingness to conduct the testing and his request for the 60-day reprieve. "I am a proponent of DNA technology," Petro said in the two-page letter to Thomas Hill, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney representing Spirko. "It is important to accommodate the use of DNA testing where practical and feasible."

Petro, a Republican running for governor next year, said he does not believe the testing will be able to prove either Spirko's innocence or his guilt. "Notwithstanding, I believe that to the extent possible, all information should be made available for the parties, courts, and the Governor to use for what purpose they feel necessary," Petro said.

Spirko was scheduled to die by injection Nov. 15 for the 1982 killing of Betty Jane Mottinger, 48, the postmistress in Elgin in northwest Ohio. She was abducted and repeatedly stabbed, then wrapped in a tarp and dumped in a field. Her body was found three weeks later.

Spirko, 59, was convicted on the basis of witness' statements and his own comments to investigators. No physical evidence linked him to the crime.

Authorities say he described details only someone at the scene of the crime could know. Spirko says he got the details from media reports and used the information to make a deal with authorities to gain the release of a girlfriend, who was held on an unrelated crime. Spirko sued in federal court last Wednesday to require the testing of the tarp, a cement block found near Mottinger's body and duct tape wrapped around her, among other items.

On Sept. 8, Taft delayed Spirko's scheduled Sept. 20 execution to look into whether prosecutors presented inaccurate information at a clemency hearing in August.

In response, the Ohio Parole Board granted an unprecedented second clemency hearing for Spirko, and on Oct. 19 voted 6-3 to recommend that Taft allow the execution to proceed. The majority said the claims of new evidence weren't enough to merit clemency.

The delay is encouraging, said Alvin Dunn, an attorney also representing Spirko. "We're looking forward to having this completed and believe it will demonstrate that our client had nothing to do with this crime," Dunn said Monday.

The tarp is important to Spirko's case because of a house painter who maintains his former boss on a painting crew is the real killer. The house painter, John Willier, passed a lie detector test last month as he repeated a 1997 statement accusing his boss, who is now in a Louisiana prison.

Spirko's attorneys say Willier told investigators in 1984 that the paint-splattered tarp Mottinger's body was wrapped in was the one his crew was using. Chemical tests matched the paint to houses the crew worked on. In past court filings, Spirko's attorneys also questioned prosecutors' attempt to link Spirko to the crime through a friend.

Prosecutors alleged the friend, Delaney Gibson, was seen near the post office the day Mottinger was abducted. But Spirko's attorneys say photographs and other evidence place Gibson with a full beard in North Carolina the day before. Witnesses say the man they saw at the post office was clean shaven.

Last year, prosecutors dropped death penalty charges against Gibson in connection with Mottinger's death, saying the case against Gibson was too old.


Convicted Killer To Be Executed

May 25, 2005

The Ohio Supreme Court on Wednesday set a Sept. 20 execution date for one of the state's longest-serving death row inmates, a man who maintains he's innocent of the murder of a postal worker.

John Spirko was sentenced to die for the 1982 murder of Elgin postmistress Betty Jane Mottinger, but says he didn't do it.

Spirko claims the state's case against him was weakened when death penalty charges against his co-defendant were dropped last year. He also says prosecutors withheld key evidence and presented a false case.

The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Spirko's appeal in March. The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld Spirko's conviction and death sentence.

An important element of the Van Wert County prosecutor's case was a witness who recognized co-defendant Delaney Gibson, a friend of Spirko, near the Elgin post office in northwest Ohio the day that Mottinger disappeared.

No physical evidence tied Spirko to the murder. He was convicted of the killing based largely on his statements to police and the testimony of the eyewitness who had seen Gibson near the post office. Prosecutors had alleged that Spirko participated in the kidnapping and killing of Mottinger along with Gibson.

In an appeal, Spirko's lawyers argued that Gibson could not have kidnapped Mottinger because he was eight hours away in Asheville, N.C., the night before the woman disappeared.

The Van Wert County prosecutor dismissed charges against Gibson on May 17, 2004, the same day the 6th Circuit upheld Spirko's death sentence.

Spirko, 58, was sentenced in September 1984, and is the ninth-longest serving member of death row, which held 193 men and one woman as of Wednesday.

Spirko contacted police in October 1982 and offered to trade information about Mottinger's death in exchange for help on unrelated assault charges. Police said Spirko told them details of the killing that the public could not have known, but Spirko's lawyers said that information could have come from secondhand repetition rather than by participation.

Spirko has asked U.S. District Judge James Carr in Toledo to review allegations raised by statements Spirko made to a postal investigator. Spirko's attorneys say the statements are full of inconsistencies.

"We are deeply concerned by these allegations," Spirko's Washington, D.C., attorney Thomas Hill said Wednesday. "We are equally concerned that the Ohio Supreme Court would go ahead and set a date knowing these matters were pending before a United States federal judge."

The issues are old and Carr has overruled them before, said Jim Canepa, the state's chief deputy attorney general of criminal justice.

The only question is who the accomplice might be, not Spirko's involvement, Canepa said.

"All the swirlings about in recent litigation deal with who was the second person. In my mind, it's a red herring," he said Wednesday. "Irregardless of who else is involved, Spirko's conviction is not undermined."



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