Of the 142 people on death row in Ohio, only one pleaded no contest to murder charges brought by prosecutors. As public defenders Joseph Wilhelm and Rachel Troutman argued persuasively, this plea offered a window into the inadequate defense counsel that Ronald Post received at many turns after his arrest 29 years ago for the murder of Helen Vantz in Elyria.
On Monday, John Kasich cited the grave flaws as he granted clemency to Post, turning his death sentence, set for Jan. 16, into life in prison without the possibility of parole. The governor stressed that his action shouldn’t be seen as diminishing “this awful crime,” Post involved in the killing of the hotel clerk. Yet he reminded that all criminal defendants deserve an adequate defense.
That is especially so in death penalty cases, with the stakes so high. The governor wasn’t alone in thinking that attorneys for Post bungled things. A 5-3 majority of the Ohio Parole Board agreed, pointing to “the glaring omissions, missed opportunities and questionable tactical decisions,” the representation “not befitting a capital case.”
Where did defense counsel go wrong, beyond the inexplicable plea? Post’s attorneys failed to challenge the prosecution’s version of a confession, even though there was much evidence to do so. They didn’t conduct an independent mitigation investigation as sentencing approached. When the federal courts opened the door to additional discovery, the attorneys let the chance slip.
Post attracted international attention earlier in the year when he argued that his weight (480 pounds) posed an obstacle to the state conducting a lethal injection “quickly and painlessly,” as required by state law. It isn’t a frivolous contention. Rather, it highlights in yet another way the vulnerability of the death penalty.
As the parole board noted, “a capital case necessitates a level of attention and responsible tactical decision-making commensurate to its gravity.” That higher standard wasn’t met in much of the Post case. The “gravity” explains why the appeals process concerning the death penalty can be so lengthy. The state must ensure that it has things right. And when there is doubt? The governor has the final word, the authority to make a correction, as John Kasich appropriately did.