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Wednesday, January 24, 2024

Too Fat To Execute

     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. The issue of a condemned man's weight arose in 1994 when a death row inmate argued that he was too fat to be humanely executed. In 1981 Mitchell Rupe shot two bank tellers to death in anOlympia Washington robbery. In 1994 federal judge Thomas S. Zilly ruled that the 425-pound convicted double murderer was too heavy to be hanged.

     Judge Zilly was afraid that when Mr. Rupe ran out of rope his body would keep going without his head. Although not as clean as having one's head severed by a guillotine, this form of decapitation is no less effective. Since the whole point of executing someone is to kill them quickly, it's not clear why Judge Zilly considered hanging Rupe as cruel and unusual punishment. While hanging this man might end up being an unusual way of dispatching a condemned prisoner, how could one method of causing sudden death be crueler than another equally effective technique? From the perspective of the death row inmate, the cruelty lies in watching the clock tick down to the big moment. In Mitchell Rupe's case, Judge Zilly was apparently more concerned with execution aesthetics than effectiveness.

     As it turned out, Judge Zilly, by saving Mitchell Rupe from a quick and painless end, sentenced him to a slow painful death caused by liver disease, advanced cirrhosis and hepatitis C. Rupe died on February 8, 2006 at age 51. At the time of his death his weight had fallen to 260 pounds. As a result of the Rupe case
the Washington legislature in 1996 changed the state's method of execution from hanging to lethal injection.

     In 1981, the year Mitchell Rupe murdered the two bank tellers in Olympia, Allen "Tiny" Davis murdered a pregnant woman and her two children during a home invasion robbery in Jacksonville, Florida. A year later a jury found him guilty of three counts of first-degree murder. The judge sentenced Davis to death. In 1998 as Davis' execution date approached, the 54-year-old death row inmate's attorney argued that his 355-pound client was too heavy for the state's 76-year-old electric chair. 

     Since it was built in 1923, Florida's "Old Sparky," having dispatched 200 inmates, had done its job quite effectively. However in 1997 during the execution of a prisoner the chair sort of malfunctioned. When the executioner applied the electricity flames shot a foot in the air from the top of the condemned man's head. The following year, with Allen "Tiny" Davis in mind, the prison oversaw the construction of a new heavy-duty electric chair that could accommodate a 350-pound person. On July 8, 1999 the Florida state executioner ran 2,300 volts through the metal cap on Davis' head for two minutes. It wasn't pretty but "Old Sparky II" did its job.

     Executing overweight prisoners through lethal injection has also presented problems for condemned men and their executioners. On May 24, 2007 an executioner in Ohio ran into difficulty killing 38-year-old Christopher Newton. Six years earlier, while serving time for burglary, Newton had murdered his cellmate. Now it was his time to go. Because of his weight--Newton tipped the scales at 265--it took the executioner two hours and ten attempts to find a proper vein for the inmate's lethal dose of pentobarbital. During the prolonged execution Mr. Newton was actually granted a bathroom break. Once again the death room aesthetics were not good. While obese people are generally unhealthy and die relatively young, they are apparently difficult to execute. I guess you'd call that a paradox.

     Nineteen-year-old Richard Cooey, in 1986, threw chunks of concrete off a bridge over Interstate 77 near Akron, Ohio causing the deaths of two University of Akron students. As his execution date approached the five-foot-seven 267-pound inmate claimed that prison food and the lack of exercise had made him too fat to execute. According to Mr. Cooey, because of his excess weight, the executioner would have a difficult time locating a vein for the lethal dose. The 41-year-old killer did not prevail in his effort to escape his date with the needle. On October 14, 2008 the Ohio executioner had no difficulty finding a way in for the pentobarbital.

     Ronald Ray Post was on death row at Ohio's Mansfield Correctional Institution for murdering a woman in 1983. According to his attorney, Mr. Post was so heavy at 480 pounds the execution gurney would not be strong enough to roll him to his death. Moreover, because of his morbid obesity (pun intended) Post's executioner would have a hard time locating a good vein for the killing agent. In support of his petition to escape his death sentence Mr. Post submitted evidence that medical personnel at the institution had in the past struggled to insert an IV into the 53-year-old's left arm.

     In 2013, not long after Ohio Governor John Kasich commuted Post's death sentence to life, the murderer died of natural causes while being treated at the Franklin Medical Center in Columbus.

     If candidates for the death penalty are becoming too fat to electrocute, hang or inject, maybe the firing-squad should be brought back. Since there are rifles that can bring down elephants there is no reason to spare the lives of fat murderers whose crimes were so atrocious they qualified for the death sentence. It's not right to allow prisoners to eat themselves out of death row. Since people who have not murdered anyone pay the consequences of overeating, so should inmates scheduled for execution. 


  1. Mister, i love your humor!

  2. Has there ever been a competely failed execution due to the failure to find a vein on a condemned prisoner

  3. Mitchell Rupe died a fair natural death; long, painful and slow, caused by his own doing. And yes Jim, hanging Rupe would have been cruel only because you know ahead of time that his head would be separated from his body! This would be nothing more than gross entertainment. The point of the death penalty is not meant to be cruel or gruesome.

  4. whaaaaaaaaaaaaaa???????????????????