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Dear Matthew Alice:

Some time ago, I read with interest a story about a condemned prisoner in Washington state (I believe) who was forbidden from eating potato chips on death row because it was discovered that he was actually trying to gain weight in order to become heavy enough so as to have his body weight cause his head to rip off when hanged. His argument was that his possible decapitation would constitute "cruel and unusual punishment" and therefore he should be spared the indignity of capital punishment. Did he succeed in cheating the gallows or was he ever *ahem* well-hung?

-- J.J., San Diego

Ol' 410-pound Mitch Rupe, you're talking about -- the Fatman of Alcatraz. Actually, of Walla Walla State Prison. By now Big Mitch is the poster boy for death-row-appeals reform. He came into the system in '81, aged 23, 6 foot 1, 330, after killing two tellers during a bank robbery. At the time, dead men walking in Washington could choose hanging or injection; if they refused to choose, they got the noose. Rupe didn't choose, perhaps fearing that the thinking involved would burn up too many calories. He began supplementing prison chow with chocolates and chips. Vigorous bouts of snacking followed by prolonged napping packed on 80 appealing pounds. And doggone, the appeal worked. Too fat to hang, blah blah, "...standards of decency...," blah blah blah, "...basic human dignity..., "etc., said the judge. Eeeeeeeeew, said the rest of us. Actually, there were also some problems with the way the case was prosecuted. That was in '94.

Since then the state has made lethal injection its form of execution, putting an end to Rupe's fatso ploy. His latest appeal had something to do with one of the original prosecutors (now dead) who had an ownership interest in the bank Rupe robbed, thus the death sentence was an act of personal vengeance. The court didn't buy that, so Rupe will have his third sentencing hearing in January. And by the way, he has hepatitis C and cirrhosis of the liver, so they'd better hurry up or he'll die before they have a chance to kill him.

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