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The Weight of the Guilt

The mistakes that put Ronald Post on Death Row are no joke

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Sympathy was a tough sell for Ronald Post once his story went viral.

Last week, lawyers pushed paperwork through the court system warning that things could get ugly next January, when Post is scheduled to be executed – his punishment for a 1983 robbery-homicide. Weighing in at 480 pounds, the 53-year old Elyria native is simply too obese for a standard lethal injection to work, they argued, at least in the painless and timely fashion required by law.

The news wires piped the story to outlets across the world, and by midweek Post's photo was splashed across the website of the UK's Telegraph. Meanwhile, on prime time MSNBC, Nancy Grace was wrestling the Botox-lacquered planes of her face into an approximation of outrage while fuming over the absurdity of the argument. Her general take was that a cold-blooded killer was trying to leverage weight that he gained in jail into one last desperate Hail Mary.

But the too-fat-to-die argument is only one corner of a much more baroque, convoluted legal circus outlined in court documents. Well before their client became a global punchline, Post's legal team was trying to jam up Death Row's clockwork with a meatier argument that has nothing to do with pant sizes. Their main contention is that for almost 30 years, the entire foundation of the case against Ronald Post has been based on bad information.

"It's been reported that we're asking for a stay of execution because he's too fat to kill, and that's not true," Post's attorney, Joseph Wilhelm, tells Scene. "The only stay of execution we've filed thus far has been in the district court, to correct the factual inaccuracies."

It was early morning on Dec. 15, 1983 when police were called to the Slumber Inn in Elyria. Night clerk Helen Vantz had been found slumped at the lobby desk with two .22 bullets in her head. The mother of three always worked the overnight shift; co-workers said she'd been looking forward to Christmas Eve, her first holiday in 13 years on the job. Robbery was the apparent motive for the murder. The motel's bank bag, containing $100, was missing, as was Vantz's purse.

Suspicion fell almost immediately on Ronald Post, a motorcycle-riding sometime mechanic and occasional drug dealer with a record of minor run-ins with law enforcement. He'd been in the hotel lobby earlier that night, chatting with a woman he knew who was working at the front desk. He left, then returned to take her to a nearby bar for drinks when Vantz arrived to replace her.

Post denied to police that he returned to the motel in the pre-dawn hours to commit the robbery. The cops wired a friend of his named David Thacker, hoping to catch Post admitting his culpability. But the case didn't firm up until police arrested two accomplices, Ralph Hall and Jeff Hoffner. The pair admitted they'd been driving around with Post on the day of the murder, looking for a business to knock over. They settled on the Slumber Inn. Supposedly, Post went inside to recon the layout, but came out vetoing the idea. The next day, the men said, Post told them that he'd changed his mind, gone back and killed Vantz.

Post was arrested and charged with two counts of aggravated murder that carried a possible death sentence. Hoffner and Hall were not charged. Post maintained his innocence and wanted a trial. But as the evidence seemed to stack up against him, his trial lawyers pushed for an admission of guilt.

What followed was a complete legal fumble. Post's lawyers eventually persuaded him to plead no contest, which took a jury trial off the table and shifted the case to a three-judge panel. The move appears to have been made to position Post for a later appeal, based on a particular piece of contested evidence. But the prosecution didn't enter that evidence into the record, mooting the point. And incredibly, Post's lawyers neglected to secure a deal from the prosecution dropping capital punishment from the possible outcomes, a common tactic in no-contest pleas.

In effect, Post had trimmed down the number of people deciding his fate from 12 to three, with no legal recourse.

Prosecutors prepared an outline of the facts and evidence in a pre-sentencing investigation for the judges. In that document, they claimed to have three taped conversations in which Post admits to the murder, as well as testimony from Hall and Hoffner that the defendant had "sole involvement" in the crime. Post's defense team didn't object to the prosecution's narrative. The only counter-argument lay in an assessment from a psychologist who, after evaluating Post, said that he was "unable to render any opinion as to mitigating factors as these relate to the commission of the offense itself," because "Mr. Post maintains his innocence."

So the Ron Post that jumped out of the report was a stone-cold killer who had acted alone and later boasted of his crimes. The three judges acted accordingly, giving him the maximum penalty. Post had managed to plead himself into a cell on Death Row without fighting the charge and still maintaining his innocence.

"It's ridiculous," Wilhelm says. "It's abject stupidity that you would let your client plead in a capital case without getting consideration for it, without having it reduced to murder without the death penalty involved. It's just unfathomable."

For the next twenty-odd years, Post's case bounced through the legal appeals process without any significant gains. Lawyers for both sides took the confessions and details laid out in the pre-sentencing report to be the basic facts of the case. Only a few years ago did Post's newest lawyers decide to actually thumb through the wire-surveillance transcripts. What they found was nothing close to the slam-dunk purported in the sentencing report.

Instead, the transcripts of the three conversations show Post fencing with a wheedling Thacker, who is desperately trying to pry information out of him while insisting that he would never narc on a friend. Post admits he's "in trouble," and that he lied to police about his alibi. He also admits his involvement with Hall and Hoffner, but claims that he doesn't know for sure who committed the murder; he suspects Hoffner.

Nowhere in the three transcripts does he explicitly admit to killing Helen Vantz. In fact, he maintains his innocence, telling Thacker that he "sure ain't no murderer."

A look at Hall and Hoffner's actual statements also raises troubling questions about Post's involvement in the crime. Hoffner told police that it was Hall who came up with the idea for a robbery and chose the Slumber Inn. Hall had the handgun at the time of the shooting, Hoffner said, as well as the victim's purse the day after.

Hall, not surprisingly, offered a different version of events. He claimed that he'd sold the pistol to Post earlier on the day of the crime, in Hoffner's presence. Before sunrise the next day, Hall said, Post arrived at his hotel room with the gun, claiming he'd used it in the murder and needed Hall to ditch it. Hall also told police that Post had Vantz's purse after the killing.

Although both sets of statements implicate Post, his attorneys realized that neither pinned guilt for the murder solely on their client. The fundamental assumptions on which the sentencing and years of appeals had been based were faulty.

"What appears to us is that his trial lawyers didn't do a thorough independent investigation." Wilhelm says, adding that today his client asserts he had "a minor role in the offense."

In 2010, Wilhelm and his colleagues filed a motion pointing out the discrepancies in the statements and pre-trial report and asking to correct the record, an unusual move so late in the appeals process. A federal judge agreed with them, stating in a motion that the court "relied on the mistaken pre-sentencing report," therefore permitting "Mr. Post to supplement the record, even at this late juncture of his appeals." That ruling, however, was overturned by an appeals court based on procedural rules.

Now, with an execution date just months away, Post's attorneys are again arguing that his conviction and sentencing were based on an erroneous pre-sentencing report.

"There is abundant law from the Supreme Court that accuracy and reliability are needed for a capital case," Wilhelm says. "And our position is, the record wasn't accurate."

While a succession of lawyers negotiated the labyrinth of his appeals process, Post's life on Death Row was equally bizarre, according to a lawsuit that he filed against the warden and prison staff in federal court last year. Although the case was eventually tossed out due to statutes of limitations and faulty arguments, the filing provides a look at the difficulties Post claims to have endured on the inside – many having to do with his weight.

Even before he went to prison, Post's weight was an issue. Prior to being locked up, he controlled it with diet pills. On the inside, he requested gastric bypass surgery and a knee replacement; according to the suit, both procedures were denied by prison officials. When Post grew so large that movement was difficult without a walker or wheelchair, he requested a larger porcelain toilet with handrails. That was also allegedly denied, forcing Post to defecate in a plastic trash can placed in his cell's shower as a substitute.

Post at one point developed a relationship with a woman from England named Tracy Lynch. According to the suit, she once made a joking reference in a letter to smuggling some of the inmate's semen out of jail for insemination after one of her visits. The prison staff misread the letter, and cut off his visitation rights.

And Post's most troubling allegation: One night in 2009, he was raped by a prison guard.

A representative from the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction declined to comment on issues pertaining to Post's medical needs due to ongoing litigation. She also said there is no record of Post making a rape allegation during his incarceration.

The crux of Post's case lies in correcting the factual record. But what's garnered headlines is his defense team's attempt to raise doubts about the method of his execution.

"Ohio's statute requires a quick and painless death by lethal injection," explains Rachel Troutman, Post's lawyer from the state's public defender office. "Experts – doctors – have reviewed his records and Ohio's execution protocols, and they've determined that Ohio's execution protocol is just not going to work on Mr. Post. If it kills him at all, it could take up to 16 hours and 200 needle sticks. That's neither quick nor painless."

According to Troutman, there's a history of medical professionals struggling to accurately sink a needle into Post; along with the layers of fat, there are deep scar tissues from past suicide attempts. According to the state's protocol, if injection into the bloodstream fails, the backup is lethal injection directly into the condemned man's musculature. Post's medical advisers say that isn't likely to finish the job in a timely fashion either.

The truth is, no one can really say how execution by intramuscular injection would pan out – the procedure has never been done before, in Ohio or anywhere else.

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