Obesity Defense Fails: 'Too Fat to Kill' Defendant Convicted

Defense argued a 299-pound man too fat to have committed murder. He lost.

Nov. 6, 2009 — -- A jury in New Jersey found that a man accused of killing his former son-in-law was not too overweight to have committed the crime.

Edward Ates, the Florida man whose attorney used an obesity defense in his month-long murder trial, was found guilty today on murder and weapons charges after two days of deliberation.

Ates weighed nearly 300 pounds and was five feet 8 inches tall. In 2006 he drove from his Florida home to New Jersey where he shot and killed Paul Duncsak, 40, 2006, prosecutors said. But defense attorney, Walter Lesnevich, told the court that Ates is not physically capable of pulling off the crime, citing the long drive and the stairs he would have had to climb and descend during the killing.

"You look at Ed, and you don't need to hear it from a doctor," Lesnevich said.

Duncsak's family saw it differently. "It doesn't bring him back, but at least he won't get away with it," his sister-in-law, Barbara Duncsak, told the Associated Press. "It's satisfying. It was a long time coming."

The charges against Ates included first-degree murder, which is punishable by up to 20 years in prison. The judge in the case revoked Ates bail and set a sentencing date for Dec. 17, the Associated Press reported.

Obesity Part of Defense at Trial

Ates' "morbid obesity" caused asthma, sleep apnea and other obesity-related ailments, Lesnevich said. He added that Ates was a longtime smoker.

Duncsak was shot once in the leg at an upward angle before the shooter bounded up four stairs and fired several more highly accurate and fatal shots, investigators said.

Ates' doctor testified that running up those stairs would have taken a toll on a man the size of Ates, likely causing his hands to shake, making firing a gun accurately difficult.

He also testified there's no way he could have then driven 21 hours straight.

"He could go up four steps, but could he then maintain the pistol straight and not miss? That's a tough shot," Lesnevich told "Good Morning America" last week. "It was more than 4 feet away."

Attorney: Sister Was Confused, Books Are Hobbies

Prosecutors painted Ates as an experienced marksman with military experience and played a wiretapped phone call in which Ates made calls to his sister in Louisiana after Duncsak was killed. In the calls, Ates goes over the timing of events with his sister. Ates' sister later testified that, at Ates' request, she had lied to detectives, telling them he was in Louisiana on the day of the killing.

Prosecutors said Ates planned the killing and did online research to make sure his scheme would work.

The military experience prosecutors cited, Lesnevich said, was not meaningful. Ates did spend 30 years in military service -- behind a computer as a technology and linguistics expert.

"He is legally blind without his glasses," he said. "He could not be a combat soldier."

Lesnevich told "GMA" that Ates' supposed research into how to kill is nothing more than the hobby of a man with too much time on his hands.

"It's all circumstantial evidence," he said. "What do you have in your library? What do you have on your computer? He also bought a book on how to build a nuclear bomb. He didn't build one."

Lesnevich said he had an eyewitness who claimed to have seen Ates in Louisiana on the day of the killing in New Jersey.

When he was killed, Duncsak and Ates' daughter had recently settled a bitter divorce. Prosecutors said tensions between Ates and Duncsak were strained.

On the stand, Ates said he had "no reason to want Paul Duncsak dead."

Unusual Defense Strategies Sometimes Pay Off

According to well-known Las Vegas attorney Conrad Claus, the obesity-based defense is risky.

"If jurors think you're treating them like an idiot, it's going to go really badly," Claus told ABC News.

But, Claus added, improbable defense strategies have worked in the past.

In 1979, a San Francisco man, Dan White, was able to get his sentence reduced based on a sugary snack.

White's so-called "Twinkie Defense" helped him get a verdict of voluntary manslaughter rather than first-degree murder in the killing of San Francisco gay activist Harvey Milk. (White and Milk were later played in the movie "Milk" by Josh Brolin and Sean Penn.)

White's attorneys argued that he was depressed and therefore his capacity for rational thought was diminished. His consumption of sugary foods and his slovenly appearance were evidence of that depression, they argued. Although many considered the defense ludicrous at the time, the jury evidently disagreed.

Battered Women

Not long ago, battered women's syndrome was considered just another oddball strategy, Claus said.

"Nobody thought a defense where you argued that you could kill somebody in self-defense because they beat you up six months ago would go anyplace. Nowadays we accept it as a matter of course," Claus said.

But Lesnevich told ABC News there's an important difference between his "too fat to kill" defense and the "Twinkie" or "battered women's syndrome" defense.

"They're saying this is what caused me to do it, this is my motivation," he said. "This defense is, 'I couldn't do it. ... This is a physical inability."

Another lawyer in Ates' defense, Michael Mildner, told ABC News the unusual strategy was simply logical.

"It's a defense that logically suggests itself from the facts of the case. It wasn't set out to be a novel defense," Mildner said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.