Some Serious Thoughts About That Obese Guy On Death Row

It’s one of those weird stories that makes you stop for a minute and say, “What??”  In Ohio, a death row inmate, Ronald Ray Post, is asking that his execution be postponed because he is morbidly obese.

Post weighs 480 pounds, and his lawyers say that the lethal execution methods that Ohio uses to impose the death penalty won’t quickly and painlessly kill him and therefore would violate the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.  Post’s lawyers contend that the gurney won’t hold his vast bulk and that the execution team will have a difficult time finding a vein in which to make the injection under the layers of fat.  The lawyers insist that Post’s weight gain wasn’t deliberate.  In fact, they note that Post requested bariatric surgery from the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction to control his weight, but administrators refused the request because the surgery wasn’t medically necessary.  (Post has not only sued the state over denial of bariatric surgery, but also because he has to use a steel toilet seat in his cell and hasn’t been granted visitation rights with a girlfriend.)

The story of Ronald Ray Post is the kind of odd story that quickly becomes the stuff of jokes.  For example, how does a guy in prison get to weigh 480 pounds?  What is the Department of Corrections feeding this guy?  Hey, I know death row prisoners get a last meal — how many last meals has this dude pounded down?  Ho ho!  And get this:  Post supposedly was trying to lose weight and was using the prison exercise bike until is broke under the strain.  Pretty funny, huh?

But beneath the crude jokes lurks a serious point, I think.  Post was convicted and sentenced to death for the heinous, deliberate killing of an innocent hotel clerk in 1983.  There’s nothing funny, obviously, about his terrible crime — and there’s really nothing funny about his situation or his claim, either.  Virtually every death sentence in Ohio is the subject of multiple, costly appeals and facially absurd claims, where we argue about whether the state is engaging in a sufficiently painless way of killing a murderer.  In the modern world of constant recession and tight government budgets, why should we pay for such appeals — to say nothing of litigation about Post’s alleged right to get bariatric surgery and a special toilet because he’s got an uncontrollable appetite?

I oppose the death penalty because I think it is wrong for the state to put people to death, and also absurd for a state that is killing an inmate to express concern about whether the inmate is unduly suffering while the death penalty is being exacted.  But I also think we can’t just afford the cost and constant litigation about death sentences.  Put confessed murderers like Mr. Post in prison forever and let him eat himself to death — but don’t make beleaguered taxpayers pay for decades to fight every step in the bizarro death penalty dance.

What Century Is This, Anyway?

Today Utah executed a death row inmate by firing squad.  That’s right — by firing squad.  In this case, a five-member firing squad accomplished the execution, shortly after midnight Mountain Time.

Utah is one of only two states that still permit death by firing squad, and then only for a few “grandfathered” death row inmates.  It is hard to understand why the method has been eliminated for all but “grandfathered” inmates, but that is Utah’s law.  Even more curious, the firing squad apparently has been selected as the execution method of choice by other “grandfathered” Utah inmates who have that option.

Why would you choose death by firing squad, as opposed to death by lethal injection?  It may be because the decision highlights, at least in part, the anachronistic nature of the death penalty.  Death by firing squad takes us back a century or more and seems more suited to dusty Central American courtyard scenes in the 1880s than the 21st century American world of computers and the internet.

The use of firing squads is not only anachronistic, it also is deeply troubling for other reasons.  How do you recruit members of the firing squad?  If it is done by volunteers, what does it tell you about the people who would volunteer to fire bullets into a target on the chest of a bound man?  And why would we want anyone who has done that deed to be walking among the general public?

Moving Toward An Unwelcome Record

Ohio is on pace to break its modern-day record for capital punishment executions in a single year.  In 2004, Ohio executed seven prisoners.  Last week Ohio executed its fifth death-row inmate this year, and the state is on pace to kill a total of 11 this year.  Only Texas has executed more people in 2010 than Ohio.

There is no doubt that many of the death-row inmates committed heinous crimes.  The most recent prisoner to be executed was known as the “Homicidal Hitchhiker” because he killed and injured people in the Cincinnati area who had helpfully offered him a ride.  The inmate, named Michael Beuke, had exhausted all of his appeals and habeas corpus arguments.  Like Beuke, the other occupants of Ohio’s death row also are people convicted of committing horrible crimes that show no regard for the sanctity of human life — and they too are slowly, but surely, working through the fruitless appeals that are the only things that stand between them and imminent execution.

I am opposed to capital punishment.  Killing people is a crime because it is the ultimate immoral, criminal act.  I don’t think the morality equation changes when the State takes a life in a cool, calculated way.  I would like to think that, as a society, we have moved beyond the death penalty, and it saddens me that Ohio is on pace to kill so many people this year.  I also think the death penalty is a waste of our resources.  Our courts spend inordinate amounts of time hearing death penalty cases and appeals, we hire lawyers to push for the death penalty, and we pay for lawyers to represent the accused.  When an execution date draws near, we hear about the constant requests for leniency, the last-minute arguments to stay the execution, and the charges that the lethal injections that are supposed to cause a painless death aren’t so painless after all.  It all seems unseemly, wasteful, and wrong to me.

I am sure that, if a loved one were killed in a senseless crime, I would want revenge — but an individual’s desire for revenge should not dictate the State’s response to criminal acts.  I think our state’s policy should be to throw a person convicted of murder into prison for life, there to live out his days in a harsh and brutal existence among the dregs of society and perhaps to reflect upon his heinous act and his wasted life.  That sounds like punishment enough to me.