WASHINGTON - Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray urged the U.S. Supreme Court yesterday to clear the way for the execution of a self-described neo-Nazi convicted in 1983 of murdering three people at Cleveland State University.
Appearing before the nine justices, Mr. Cordray asked the high court to overturn a decision last year by a federal appeals court in Ohio that had set aside the death penalty for Frank Spisak, Jr., 58.
Spisak is being held at the Mansfield Correctional Institution.
The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the trial judge incorrectly told jurors during the sentencing hearing that they had to unanimously turn down the death penalty before they could consider a life sentence.
The court of appeals ruled that prevented individual jurors from considering whether Spisak was so insane he should serve a life sentence instead.
In addition, the court of appeals ruled that Tom Shaughnessy, Spisak's original defense attorney, provided an ineffective defense when, during closing arguments of the sentencing phase, he told jurors that "when you turn and look at Frank Spisak, don't look for good deeds, because he has done none. Don't look for good thoughts because he has none. He is sick, he is twisted."
But Mr. Cordray contended that although Mr. Shaughnessy, who died in 1997, did not make a "perfect" closing argument, he was trying to persuade the jury to give Spisak a life sentence.
Spisak wore an Adolf Hitler-style mustache at trial, gave the Nazi salute, and boasted of his hatred of African-Americans and Jews.
Spisak also has sued state officials because prison officials refuse to refer to him as a woman, as he prefers.
The justices seemed incredulous that the trial judge had rejected an insanity defense. Justice Stephen Breyer said Spisak "sounds like he was a little bonkers," adding that Mr. Shaughnessy appeared to be telling the jurors that "we don't execute guys who are crazy and this guy is crazy."
But at least three of the justices indicated they were appalled by Mr. Shaughnessy's closing argument.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg characterized it as "disjointed," while new Justice Sonia Sotomayor complained that it was "no defense whatsoever."