Too fat for the death penalty. For many people around the globe, that is the essence of the argument made by Ronald Post, a 480-pound inmate on death row in Ohio set for execution early next year. They have caught a glimpse of the case through media coverage. Actually, the matter is more complicated. Get beyond the guffaws about a man supposedly eating his way out of a lethal injection, and you arrive at a question that has vexed the state in recent years: How does Ohio appropriately, justly and humanely conduct the death penalty?
What was humane about the murder for which Post was convicted in 1985, shooting a hotel clerk in the head in Lorain County? Nothing. Yet part of capital punishment involves distinctions, between the brutal and the civil, all of us taking care to get the facts right, to provide the accused with adequate counsel and to conduct the death penalty “quickly and painlessly” as required by state law.
Recall that in 2007, the state had trouble with the execution of Christopher Newton, 6-feet tall, 265 pounds. A procedure designed to take 20 minutes consumed two hours, as the execution team struggled to find veins for the required injections. A spokeswoman for the state prison system explained: “His size is creating a problem.”
Know, too, that federal Judge Gregory Frost has expressed dismay on multiple occasions with Ohio bungling compliance with its own procedures for conducting the death penalty. A particular shortcoming has been the failure to get the approval of the director of the state Department of Rehabilitation and Correction for deviations from the protocol. “It should not be so hard for Ohio to follow procedures that the state itself created,” a frustrated Frost argued in January.
New attorneys for Post have put forward credible assessments from medical authorities about the potential troubles ahead. One expert explained at length the likely difficulties, from the lack of available veins to the inadequacies of the doses involved in lethal injection. The substantial risk is, the procedure won’t work, requiring additional injections and other steps, perhaps covering as much as 16 hours, the state even coming close to torture.
So what? The law doesn’t allow for such variations. It doesn’t have a clause that holds when the inmate is obese, do whatever is necessary to bring death. The state must confront the real possibility that the execution of Post would become a spectacle.
The case gets more complicated. Prosecutors won their conviction, in large part, by arguing that Post confessed to sole involvement in the murder. Yet the record shows Post actually stopped far short of such a confession. He merely talked about being involved. Unfortunately, his legal counsel didn’t expose this flaw in the record until recently.
Too late to make a difference? At the least, the state must think twice about the death penalty, doubts emerging about whether Post amounts to the worst of the worst. Then, there is his weight. However he got to this point, the state has set up the death penalty, and has a duty to ensure it is conducted according to the law.