AP Legal Affairs Writer
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - The decision by Ohio's governor to spare a morbidly obese death row inmate on legal grounds unrelated to the prisoner's weight means executions will likely carry on in the state next year.
Gov. John Kasich on Monday commuted the death sentence of Ronald Post to life without the possibility of parole, sparing him for the 1983 shooting death of Elyria motel clerk Helen Vantz in a robbery.
Kasich's decision to grant Post mercy mirrored the recommendation by the state parole board, which said it didn't doubt Post's guilt but said there were too many problems with how he was represented 30 years ago.
Post, who weighs 450 pounds, never raised the issue of his size with the board. And Kaisch, who commuted Post's sentence to life with no chance of parole, didn't mention Post's obesity claim in his statement. Kasich spokesman Rob Nichols said the governor didn't consider Post's obesity claim.
The governor said all criminal defendants, regardless of the heinousness of the crimes, deserve an adequate defense.
"This decision should not be viewed by anyone as diminishing this awful crime or the pain it has caused," Kasich said.
Post's attorneys applauded the decision.
The parole board and Kasich "rightly recognized that, in cases in which the state seeks to execute one of its citizens, our justice system simply must work better than it did in Mr. Post's case," said public defenders Joe Wilhelm and Rachel Troutman.
A scheduled hearing Monday on Post's obesity claim before Columbus federal judge Gregory Frost was delayed and is now moot. Frost has kept a close eye on Ohio's execution procedures and has postponed executions in the past as he ripped the state for making changes to those rules.
Frost has made it clear he wants strict adherence to the basics of those policies, and it was likely that problems executing Post in January could have led to another critical ruling by Frost.
Post argued in federal court that executing him would amount to cruel and unusual punishment. His attorneys said he would suffer "a torturous and lingering death" as executioners tried to find a vein or use a backup method where lethal drugs are injected directly into muscle.
The assertion that Kasich did not consider the obesity issue must be accepted, said Michael Benza, a Case Western University law professor and death row attorney.
"I trust when the governor says that was not a factor," Benza said Monday in an interview. "But it's a little unrealistic to say it's not hanging around in the background of all this."
In its Friday decision, the parole board rejected arguments made by Post's attorneys that he deserves mercy because of lingering doubts about his "legal and moral guilt" in a woman's death, but it said it couldn't ignore perceived missteps by his lawyers.
"Post took Vantz's life, devastating the lives of her loved ones in the process," the board said in its 5-3 decision. But it said a majority of its members agreed his sentence should be commuted to life in prison without chance of parole because of omissions, missed opportunities and questionable decisions made by his previous attorneys and because that legal representation didn't meet expectations for a death penalty case.
Dissenting parole board members said it was clear Post killed Vantz and that questionable moves by his attorneys don't outweigh the circumstances of the case.
The long-held presumption that Post confessed to the murder to several people has been falsely exaggerated, Post's attorneys have argued. Post admitted involvement in the crime as the getaway driver to a police informant but didn't admit to the killing.
"The death penalty should be reserved for cases where proof of guilt is reliable and the legal system produced a just result," the defense had said. "Neither criteria is met in this case."
Lorain County prosecutor Dennis Will had pointed to the written no contest plea, in which Post acknowledged responsibility, as "a compelling reason" to reject clemency.
Ohio's next execution is March 6, when Frederick Treesh of Lake County is scheduled to die for the 1994 shooting death of an adult bookstore security guard during a robbery.
Ohio has 10 executions scheduled over the next two years.
Andrew Welsh-Huggins can be reached on Twitter at https://twitter.com/awhcolumbus.
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