Image: Mitchell Rupe
Louie Balukoff  /  AP file
Mitchell Rupe, seen in 2000, escaped being hanged in 1994. Hanging was Washington state's only manner of execution at the time.
updated 2/7/2006 6:53:44 PM ET 2006-02-07T23:53:44

Mitchell Rupe, a former death row inmate once found too fat to hang, died at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla on Tuesday following a long illness, a prison spokeswoman said. He was 51.

Spokeswoman Lori Scamahorn said Rupe died shortly after noon at the hospital inside the prison grounds. He had been there since Jan. 3.

Rupe shot two Olympia bank tellers to death at point-blank range during a 1981 robbery.

Juries twice sentenced him to death, but higher courts overturned the sentences. In 1994, a federal judge upheld his conviction but agreed with Rupe’s contention that at 400 pounds, he was too fat to hang because of the risk of decapitation.

At the time, Washington’s only manner of execution was hanging.

The main method now is lethal injection, although a condemned inmate can still opt for hanging.

Relatives of victims Twila Capron and Candace Hemmig attended numerous court hearings over the years, hoping to see him executed.

Three attempts at a death penalty
Prosecutors tried for the death penalty a third time in 2000, but a jury deadlocked 11-1 — just shy of the unanimous vote required for capital punishment. He got a life sentence by default.

Rupe declined an opportunity to speak to the court and smiled and waved to his elderly mother, Anna, as he was escorted from the courtroom.

Rupe suffered from a terminal liver disease, and there was doubt at that time whether he would have lived long enough to be executed even if the jury had been unanimous.

Frank Brown, the Walla Walla County coroner, estimated that Rupe weighed between 260 and 270 pounds at the time of his death.

Brown will perform an autopsy Wednesday, and the body will ultimately be released to Rupe’s family.

“An autopsy is done on all inmates that are incarcerated,” Brown said.

He said there were no immediate signs of foul play.

Former Rupe defense attorney Todd Maybrown said in 1998 that Rupe suffered from terminal liver disease, advanced cirrhosis and hepatitis C and had a life expectancy of 18 months.

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