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U.S. Supreme Court

Lawyer who Badmouthed His Client Gave a ‘Brilliant’ Argument, Scalia Says

Posted Oct 14, 2009 9:04 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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U.S. Supreme Court justices differed Tuesday over the trial strategy of a criminal defense lawyer who called his neo-Nazi client “demented” and invited jurors to “smell the death” of the murder scene.

The defendant, Frank Spisak, “celebrated his killings in court and openly discussed his hateful views,” the Associated Press reports. “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.” He was convicted of three murders, but a federal appeals court reversed, partly on the ground that Spisak’s lawyer provided ineffective assistance.

Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray told the justices that the lawyer’s argument in 1983 on behalf of defendant Spisak was part of a “coherent strategy,” the National Law Journal reports. The idea was to appeal to jurors’ humanity and to argue they could spare Spisak’s life even if he was demented, according to the stories.

Justice Antonin Scalia appeared to agree. "I thought it was a brilliant closing argument,” he said. "The technique that counsel used to try to get mercy for this fellow was the best that could have been done."

But Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg expressed qualms, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer. She said the closing argument of the lawyer, who has since died, was "disjointed," went "off on tangents," and appeared to be "stream of consciousness," the Plain Dealer reports.

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