Death of obese Ohio inmate escalates death penalty debate

The death two weeks ago of a 450-pound inmate who had said he was too fat to be executed has done little to temper an escalating debate in Ohio over capital punishment.

Ronald Post was 53 when he died in a prison hospital in Columbus on July 26. He had captured national attention a year ago with his plea for leniency from death row. He claimed executioners would not be able to find any veins in his arms or legs necessary for the lethal injection. His lawyers worried he might even break the death chamber gurney.

The state’s republican governor, John Kasich, sidestepped the argument that Post was too heavy to be killed humanely but still granted him clemency, citing inept legal representation.

Post had been sentenced to death for killing a motel clerk during a robbery in 1983.

The details of this unusual capital case are being scrutinized at a critical time: A joint task force established by the state bar association and the Ohio Supreme Court is examining the death penalty and has already begun proposing reforms.


Critics of the current system say Post was a symbol of the inequities that can cement an inmate’s death sentence.

“It’s another example of the way in which the death penalty system isn’t working,” said Diann Rust-Tierney, executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. “It highlights the question of whether people’s resources and representation determine the outcome of capital cases.”

Post, whose death was called “expected” by a state prisons spokeswoman, was scheduled to be executed on Jan. 16, 2013. Kasich granted him clemency in December on the grounds that his defense had been botched. Experts say his lawyers failed to introduce mitigating evidence, let Post take a polygraph test with a biased contractor, and had him plead no contest without negotiating with prosecutors to rule out the death penalty.

A 2000 study at Columbia Law School showed that among the 68% of capital sentences that are marred by serious, reversible error, the most common mistakes arise from incompetent lawyering. Ohio has killed the eighth-most inmates in the country since 1976.

John Murphy, executive director of the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Assn., said that the real problem, however, is exaggerated claims of flawed representation. He urged the state task force to consider reforms requiring defense lawyers to keep records of their investigation in the event that their clients claim incompetence.

“We think representation is competent,” he said. “The problem is we don’t have hard and fast records to prove it.”

Post was mocked for suggesting he was too fat to be killed. But Richard Dieter, executive director of the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center, said there’s reason to worry that medical standards remain murky for executing inmates, especially those suffering from health problems.

Kasich has responded actively to clemency requests in capital cases, commuting four inmates’ death sentences for reasons ranging from mental incapacity to a severely abusive childhood. That record, which experts describe as unusual for a Republican governor, has drawn praise from both sides of the death penalty debate.

“He doesn’t rubber stamp a lot of these clemency orders,” said Mike Brickner, spokesman for the ACLU of Ohio. “He really seems to be looking at these cases.”

Another recent case involved an inmate named Billy Slagle, who was 18 when he stabbed his neighbor in 1987. Slagle had requested clemency from the governor. Despite the Cuyahoga County prosecutor arguing that under current guidelines Slagle wouldn’t receive a death sentence, Kasich denied the clemency request without comment.

On Sunday, Slagle was found hanged in his prison cell, three days before he was scheduled to be executed.

Advocates of reform insist on stricter overall policies to address underlying biases in capital punishment decisions.

The state’s task force is charged with responding to a 2007 report that found severe racial and geographic disparities in Ohio’s death penalty sentencing.

Among the report’s findings were that inmates whose victims were white were nearly four times more likely to receive a death sentence than those whose victims were black, and that rates of death sentence convictions varied by an order of six among different Ohio counties.

In response, the task force, composed of prosecutors, public defenders, judges and professors, has proposed dramatic reforms. They’ve recommended establishing a state panel with authority to review death penalty charges before prosecutors bring them to court, and eliminating the death penalty for certain classes of crimes.

Those recommendations, which were narrowly approved by a divided task force, would require legislative action to become law. The task force expects to conclude its work this year.


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Twitter: @benjmueller