CLEVELAND – The Supreme Court on Tuesday reinstated for a second time the death sentence of a neo-Nazi convicted of murdering three men in Ohio more than a quarter century ago.
The justices ruled unanimously that a federal appeals court wrongly set aside the death sentence of Frank Spisak.
The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati found Spisak's trial lawyer was ineffective and that his jury received faulty sentencing instructions.
In an opinion by Justice Stephen Breyer, the high court said the 6th Circuit should have deferred to state court rulings that upheld Spisak's death sentence.
Spisak was convicted of three murders at Cleveland State University over a seven-month period in 1982 — crimes he said were motivated by his hatred of gays, blacks and Jews. At the same time, Spisak claimed his crimes were sparked by mental illness related to confusion about his sexual identity. He wants to have surgery to become a woman.
The 1983 trial became a public spectacle as Spisak celebrated his killings in court and openly discussed his hateful views. He even grew a Hitler-style mustache, carried a copy of Hitler's book, "Mein Kampf" during the proceedings and gave the Nazi salute to the jury.
The 6th Circuit once before had thrown out Spisak's sentence only to be reversed by the Supreme Court.
Spisak, who has called himself Frances Anne, blamed his crimes on a mental illness related to a sexual identity crisis.
Cleveland's Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Brendan Sheehan, who was 15 when Spisak was tried for killing his father in a men's bathroom at Cleveland State, said his family would be relieved to have the lingering case move ahead.
"We're hoping that this chapter can be put behind us and that the Ohio courts will follow through with Supreme Court statements," said Sheehan, who developed an interest in the law during the Spisak trial.
The case's duration has been difficult on his family, Sheehan said.
"Here again is another chapter where you know a family who has moved forward in their lives has to go back to a dark part in their time and rehash something," he said.
Spisak's attorney, Michael Benza, said he was disappointed the court didn't agree that the performance of Spisak's trial lawyer had harmed his chances.
Benza had argued that that Spisak's attorney, Thomas Shaughnessy, who died in 1997, failed to argue that various circumstances in his favor meant Spisak should escape the death penalty. Shaughnessy described Spisak at trial as "demented" and "undeserving of sympathy."
"It's very troubling that a lawyer can stand up and say the things that the lawyer said in this case to the detriment of the client," Benza said.
The case is Smith v. Spisak, 08-724.