Court tosses Spotz appeal

Clearfield man on death row sought to attack state’s death penalty statute

Mark N. Spotz, a Clearfield County man on death row for killings in three eastern Pennsylvania counties, has lost his attempt to attack the state’s death penalty statute based on two 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decisions.

The U.S. Supreme Court by 8-1 majorities found that a clause in the federal Armed Career Criminal Act, used to enhance the sentences of two men convicted as felons not to possess firearms, was unconstitutionally vague and therefore not applicable for sentencing purposes.

In separate cases, Samuel James Johnson, a white supremacist, and Gregory Welch were each sentenced to 15 years in prison — receiving five-year enhancements — as felons for illegally possessing firearms.

According to the government, each man had at least three prior incidents of either violence or threats of violence.

The U.S. Supreme Court found the enhancement in Johnson’s case to be unfairly vague as the defense questioned the ruling by a lower court that possession of a weapon was an act of violence.

In the Welch case, the U.S. Supreme Court found the ruling against enhancements under the Career Criminal Act was retroactive, meaning it was applicable to past cases, because it represented a “substantial rule change” in federal law.

Spotz, now 46 and an inmate at the State Correctional Institution at Greene, contended the clause in the federal law ruled unconstitutionally vague was similar to an aggravating circumstance in the state’s death penalty act.

Spotz received death penalties for murders he committed in 1995 in Schuylkill, York and Cumberland counties.

A prior history of violence or threats of violence is considered an aggravating circumstance under Pennsylvania law, and Spotz allegedly had a history of violence.

A jury in Pennsylvania can impose the death penalty if a defendant is convicted of first-degree murder and it finds that the aggravating circumstances outweigh whatever mitigating circumstances that are presented by the defense.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, in an opinion issued Wednesday, unanimously ruled Spotz’s argument does not apply to Pennsylvania’s death penalty statute or to Spotz himself.

It also ruled that Spotz’ post-conviction petitions raising the question were untimely.

Petitions under Pennsyl-vania’s Post-Conviction Hearing Act must be filed within a year of the closing of the case by the appellate courts.

Under that rule, Spotz’s petitions, filed by attorney Mark Bookman of the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation, dealing with the death penalties imposed in York and Cumberland counties, should have been filed in the early 2000s.

In each case Spotz filed untimely petitions, according to the state Supreme Court opinion, written by Justice David N. Wecht.

The other Supreme Court justices, Thomas G. Saylor, Max Baer, Debra Todd, Christine Donohue, Kevin M. Dougherty and Sallie Mundy, joined the Wecht opinion.

The justices also found that the U.S. Supreme Court ruling was not applicable to Spotz, thereby upholding opinions issued by judges in York and Cumberland counties because the Johnson and Welch cases “found a federal sentencing statute unconstitutional, whereas Spotz was sentenced under a state statute.”

“The courts (in York and Cumberland) held that Johnson and Welch simply did not apply to Spotz,” the opinion stated.

Spotz’s murder spree began Jan. 31, 1995, at his Clearfield County home when he killed his brother, Dustin.

In the ensuing days he robbed and murdered June Ohlinger of Schuylkill County, kidnapped, robbed and murdered Penny Gunnet in York County and murdered 70-year-old Betty Amstutz in Cumberland County.

He was eventually convicted of voluntary manslaughter of his brother.

He was convicted of first-degree murder in each of the other three counties and sentenced to death.

Spotz has petitions challenging his convictions in the federal courts, including the one involving the death of his brother, which is before U.S. District Judge Kim R. Gibson in Johnstown.