VAN WERT, Ohio - Clarence Mottinger can't understand why 20 years after his wife, Betty Jane, was brutally murdered, her killer is still sitting on death row.
John Spirko, Jr., a former Toledoan convicted of Mrs. Mottinger's 1982 murder and sentenced in Van Wert County Common Pleas Court to death, has taken his case to a federal appeals court and has asked the court for “post-conviction release from sentence,” which means either a new sentence or a new trial.
“For 20 years, she's been dead in the grave, and he's still alive,” Mr. Mottinger, 67, said yesterday. “He should have been put to death years and years ago.
“There's no doubt he done it. There's every evidence in the world he done it. It's a travesty that he hasn't been executed,” Mr. Mottinger said.
Mr. Mottinger and his second wife, Connie, whom he married in 1994, are urging area residents to write to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati and to the governor urging Spirko's execution.
Mr. Mottinger, a Ford Motor Co. retiree who now lives in Fremont, Ind., said he believes that if the state carried out Spirko's death sentence, it would help him and his family heal.
“I think it would finally be some sort of a closure for us,” he said. “There's just like a wall we can't get over.”
Connie Mottinger, who never met her husband's first wife, said she hopes people will write to the appeals court to say, “Enough. Stop wasting our tax dollars on this man.”
Spirko, now 56, had been out of prison just 12 days when he robbed the tiny Elgin Post Office in Van Wert County about 90 miles southwest of Toledo.
He abducted Mrs. Mottinger, the postmistress, raped her, and stabbed her 14 to 18 times. Her remains were found wrapped in a paint-spattered tarpaulin more than a month later in a Hancock County soybean field.
“He did it in such a bad way,” Connie Mottinger said.
Mr. Mottinger said he felt compelled to move out of state 10 years ago as Spirko's years on death row wore on.
“I just couldn't bring myself to see my tax dollars used to help feed and clothe him,” he said.
Spirko has not been on Ohio's death row the longest, but he's one of its senior members.
The posting on Attorney General Betty Montgomery's Web site that talks about Ohio's death penalty cases states in large type: “DAYS SINCE DEATH PENALTY IMPOSED: 6,580.”
Today, that will stand at 6,581.
While Mr. Mottinger said his family thought the death penalty would be carried within three years of Spirko's trial and sentence, others said the delays are inevitable.
Thomas Strausbaugh, a former U.S. postal inspector who led the investigation of Mrs. Mottinger's disappearance, said he never doubted Spirko's guilt but wasn't surprised to hear Spirko's case was still in appeals.
He recalled how Spirko told the jury that convicted him to go ahead and give him the death penalty.
Spirko, who had been convicted of strangling an elderly Kentucky woman in 1970, has always maintained his innocence in the Mottinger case and didn't exactly admit to the crime when he spoke to the jury before his sentencing.
“He said something like, `You found me guilty, so the just thing is I should be put to death. If I'm not given the death penalty, I'll spend every day plotting an escape, and I'll kill again,'” Mr. Strausbaugh recalled.
Joe Case, spokesman for the attorney general's office, said he understood the Mottinger family's frustration, although he's not certain what impact a letter-writing campaign to the court could have.
“They have a right to do so if they wish,” he said, adding that unlike cases before the Ohio Parole Authority the appeals court must make its decision purely on the basis of the law and the facts of the case.
“We can understand the frustration of victims' families wanting the process to speed up, and the attorney general has been active throughout the years in trying to speed these appeals up,” Mr. Case said. “Mind you, we're not supporting a rush to judgment by any means, but the attorney general does feel for the system to maintain credibility the cases have to be dealt with in a fair and timely manner.”
Oral arguments in the Spirko case were presented to the federal appeals court April 30, and the two sides are now waiting for a three-judge panel to issue a decision.
If Spirko loses his appeal at the federal level, he still can try to have the U.S. Supreme Court hear his case.