America’s weight problem has changed the way we live and die and has affected how we punish, or can’t punish, some of our worst criminals. While the U.S. Supreme Court has not prohibited the execution of certain types of murderers, …
Today, death row inmates are killed by lethal injection. This method of execution fits in nicely with our pharmaceutical culture. We take drugs to get well, to sleep, and to get high, so why not use drugs to execute certain murderers in the 32 states where the death penalty is still legal. But now there is a growing concern about executing people with drugs. Over the past twenty years, several death row prisoners have tried to escape their fates by claiming they are too obese to be humanely injected. In Ohio (one of our fattest states), this has been a recurring correctional issue. (West Virginians are fatter than Ohioans, but in that state they have abolished the death penalty. In the Mountaineer State, convicted, overweight murderers probably don't live much longer than those on Ohio's death row.)
In May 2007, an executioner in Ohio ran into difficulty when he tried to kill, by injection, 38-year-old Christopher Newton. Six years earlier, while serving time for burglary, Newton murdered his cellmate. Now it was his time to go. Because of his weight,which was 265-pounds, it took the executioner two hours and ten attempts to find a receptive vein for the lethal dose of pentobarbital. During the prolonged execution Newton was actually allowed to go to the bathroom. It would be his last bathroom break, however.
Nineteen-year-old Richard Cooey, in 1986, threw chunks of concrete off a bridge over Interstate 77 near Akron, Ohio. The act caused the deaths of two University of Akron students. As Cooey's execution date drew near, the 5-foot-7, 267 pound inmate alleged that prison food and lack of exercise had made him too fat to painlessly execute. According to the 41-year-old Ohio prisoner, the executioner's difficulty in finding a friendly vein would cause him stress and discomfort. On October 14, 2008, the Ohio executioner, probably under a little stress himself, had no problem introducing the pentobarbital into Mr. Cooey's system.
In 1983, Ronald Post murdered Helen Vantz, a hotel desk clerk in Elyria, Ohio. A jury found him guilty and a judge sentenced him to death. There wasn't then, nor now, any question regarding his guilt. Because Post didn't exercise and ate too much, he ballooned-up to 400 pounds. In an effort to get control of his weight, Post asked the government to pay for gastric bypass surgery. (Had he been incarcerated in Massachusetts, Post could have gotten his gastric surgery plus, if he wanted, a sex change operation. Ohio is cruel that way.)
In 1997, claiming that prison health care providers were having difficulty finding his veins for medication, Ronald Post argued that to execute him this way would amount to a violation of his Eighth Amendment right against cruel and unusual punishment.
After the federal appellate judge refused to take Ronald Post off death row, prison authorities in Ohio scheduled his execution by lethal injection for January 16, 2013. In November 2012, Mr. Post, claiming to weigh 480 pounds, filed another appeal in which he argued that he had grown so fat his veins were even less accessible. Not only that, the prison didn't own a gurney sturdy enough to roll him into the death chamber. According to Post's attorney, executing his client under those circumstances would comprise "a substantial risk that any attempt to execute him will result in serious physical and psychological pain to him...." The lawyer added that Mr. Post's execution would consist of "a torturous and lingering death."
State authorities opposing Ronald Post's attempt to see the other side of January 16, 2013, argued that in fact the death row inmate only weighted 396 pounds. In this case it really didn't matter how much this man weighed. The federal appeals court in Cincinnati had already ruled against Mr. Post on the weight issue. Moreover, the state of Ohio, given all of its resources, could probably find a heavy-duty gurney and an executioner who can locate hard-to-find veins. This killer's execution became a moot issue however when, on December 17, 2013, Governor John Kasich granted Ronald Post clemency on the grounds he had poor legal representation at his trial.
If our procedurally oriented criminal justice system were efficient and reliable enough to dispatch first-degree murderers within two years of their convictions, death row inmates wouldn't have time to get so fat. After ten or twenty years on death row, many of these inmates also find religion and become different people. The person being executed is not the same person who committed the crime. (The Karla Faye Tucker case in Texas is a good example of this. While on death row, Karla found Jesus. To the dismay of protesting evangelicals, Texas went ahead and executed her anyway. I don't think the state has dispatched a female since.)
There are death row inmates who, while smart enough to have committed first-degree murder, when it comes time to execute them, are too stupid to kill. It seems cruel and unusual to execute slow-witted killers. So, if a death row inmate isn't fat, or hasn't found Jesus, he can pretend to be stupid. (Hell, who can't flunk an I.Q. test? What's tough is pretending to be smart.)
The way it's administered, the death penalty isn't worth the effort. If there is anything "torturous and lingering" about the execution process, it's the time and money it takes to dispatch these brutal, inhumane killers.