The Supreme Court on Tuesday reinstated the death sentence of a neo-Nazi who shot four people during a 1980s murder spree at Cleveland State University in Ohio.
Frank Spisak, 57, was convicted of killing three people and seriously wounding a fourth over a seven-month period. During a sensational trial, Spisak grew an Adolf Hitler-style mustache, gave Nazi salutes to jurors and carried a copy of Hitler's Mein Kampf to court.
Spisak admitted to the shootings, but the defense argued that he was mentally unstable. The month-long trial featured testimony that Spisak had a deep hatred of homosexuals, blacks and Jews and that he was a cross-dresser who wanted to have surgery to become a woman.
Spisak was found guilty of killing the Rev. Horace Rickerson, CSU student Brian Warford and Timothy Sheehan, who was CSU's assistant superintendent for buildings and grounds. He also was convicted of attempting to kill John Hardaway, who was shot seven times, but survived. He also shot at Coletta Dartt, but missed.
Jurors recommended that Spisak be put to death.
Spisak appealed the sentence to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, saying that improper instructions were given to the jury and that his attorney was ineffective because of what he claimed were derisive comments during the closing argument. The appeals court agreed and set aside the sentence.
But after hearing oral arguments in October, the high court unanimously decided that Spisak's arguments were unjustified.
"We conclude that there is not a reasonable probability that a more adequate closing argument would have changed the result," said Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for the court. "The jurors had fresh in their minds the government's evidence regarding the killings ... as well as Spisak's boastful and unrepentant confessions and his threats to commit further acts of violence."
Michael Benza, attorney for Spisak, said he was disappointed that the justices concluded the trial attorney didn't act improperly — despite calling his client "sick, "twisted" and "demented," someone who was "never going to be any different."
"It's a disturbing thought that capital cases are just not winnable," Benza said. "It's very clear that's what [the court] meant when Justice Stevens says that not even Clarence Darrow could have changed this case. The fact is that those of us who do capital work have clients that everybody says should die, and, yet, we don't execute them. That's because of lawyers who stand there and do their jobs."
Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray, who argued the case, said he was pleased with the court's decision. "Mr. Spisak's murder campaign is one of the most infamous in Ohio's history. The jury's decision to impose a death sentence was appropriate given the horrific nature of his crimes," he said.
Cordray thanked the families of the victims for the patience during the decades-long ordeal.
In other business, the justices heard oral arguments in United States v. Comstock, in which four men convicted of sex-related crimes are challenging the federal government's right to detain them after they completed their sentences.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last year that Congress overstepped its authority when it enacted the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, which provides for "sexually dangerous" inmates to be detained indefinitely.
Federal public defender G. Alan DuBois said this practice would overstep official bounds when it comes to sentencing people for federal crimes. "Civil commitment has never been part of the criminal justice system," he said.
But Solicitor General Elena Kagan argued that the government must ensure that sexual predators are not released into society.
Separately, the court heard arguments in Abbott v. Abbott, a case that seeks to determine whether violation of a clause prohibiting one parent from taking a child outside the country of residence without permission from the other parent is an unlawful removal under the Hague Convention on International Child Abduction.
The case involves the alleged abduction of a child from Chile to the United States. It bears some similarities to a case involving a New Jersey father, David Goldman, whose wife took their 4-year-old son to her native Brazil on vacation and never returned. Goldman's wife later filed for divorce and remarried a Brazilian attorney. She died during childbirth in 2008, leaving Goldman in the midst of a bitter custody dispute with the boy's stepfather. Goldman and his son were reunited on Christmas Eve.
Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.