Gov. John Kasich made the right call in sparing the life of convicted killer Ronald Post. But the governor also needs to help fix the sort of legal problems he cited in granting the clemency that still confront hundreds, or thousands, of defendants in Ohio every year.
Weighing 450 pounds, Post, 53, will serve a life sentence with no possibility of parole. He was scheduled to be executed next month for the murder of an Elyria motel clerk in a 1983 robbery. Post had argued in federal court that because of his weight, putting him to death by lethal injection would constitute cruel and unusual punishment.
In granting clemency, Governor Kasich sidestepped that issue. Instead, he cited multiple missteps and errors by Post’s trial lawyers, and argued that all criminal defendants deserve an adequate and effective defense.
But Ohio is nowhere near achieving that standard for poor people. It has an underfunded hodgepodge of 88 local systems of indigent defense that vary greatly in cost, quality, and efficiency.
Counties may contract with the state Public Defender’s Office, run their own office, use appointed counsel, hire nonprofit groups, or use a combination of systems to represent poor defendants. The state reimburses local indigent defense systems for 35 percent of their costs, regardless of efficiency.
Moreover, the Ohio Public Defender has little ability to enforce, or even monitor, standards. It has practically no oversight over appointed counsel — a practice rife with patronage.
In sparing Post’s life, the governor followed the recommendation of the Ohio Parole Board, which rejected arguments by Post’s attorneys that his guilt was in doubt. Board members did concede that Post’s defense failed to meet the expectations of a death penalty case.
Outside of death penalty cases, politicians seldom invoke the constitutional right to adequate legal defense. Yet having an innocent person serve a life sentence would be equally unjust.
So are excessive sentences that result from poor lawyering. Such results are not only immoral but also costly, when undeserving defendants serve time in prison at a cost to taxpayers of $30,000 a year.
Unless DNA evidence is available, most wrongful convictions won’t get reversed or acknowledged, especially with appellate courts that practically rubber-stamp criminal convictions.
Governor Kasich did the right thing in acknowledging the importance of effective legal representation in a death-penalty case. To help ensure such standards for many other defendants, however, he must lead the state to develop a better- funded, unified, and central system of indigent defense.