Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

Long before Columbine, there was Frank Spisak (see pic), a neo-Nazi and transvestite who murdered three students at Cleveland State University. Spisak was convicted and sentenced to death in Ohio--26 years ago. His lawyer was the brilliant old-time criminal defense lawyer and notorious drunk, Tom Shaughnessy, now deceased.

Shaughnessy, was probably more effective before he drank his lunch, than afterwards--I once saw him eat a police officer alive (before lunch) on cross-examination--while multi-tasking over numerous other matters during the era before cell phones, lap tops and smart phones--in a hectic Cleveland court room. At lunch with him later--he counted wads of cash he collected from relatives of criminal defendants and quaffed prodigious quantities of liquor. He would stumble back to court and continue.

Shaughnessy was trying to save Spisak's life. Shaughnessy had saved the lives of many murderers over the years, but this was a high-profile matter and the press and prosecutor had the big guns out. The trial judge prevented, Shaughnessy from advancing an insanity defense. Shaughnessy, instead, tried to appeal to the better angels among the jury members he said, "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 and twisted." Tom Shaughnessy hoped that the jury would find the humanity in themselves to save Spisak's pathetic life. They didn't.

Yesterday the State of Ohio argued that the US Supreme Court should vacate a Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals decision that found Spisak received ineffective assistance of counsel. Ohio still wants to kill Spisak.

I knew Tom Shaughnessy, not well, but well enough to suspect that wiley old Tom Shaughnessy actually did save Frank Spisak's life--and, that Shaughnessy "ineffectively" knew precisely what he was doing.


  1. Beautifully written. And ingeniously conceived.

  2. The Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in the Spisak case in a decision handed down this morning.