Thu, Jan 27, 2005 - Page 7 News List

Man found not guilty after 18 years on US death row

INCOMPETENCE A US federal court ruled that defense lawyers did a bad job -- but prosecutors still have 90 days to decide whether to retry the murder case

THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

A Briton who has been on death row in the US for 18 years has had his conviction and sentence quashed by a US court.

A federal appeals court in Ohio ruled on Tuesday that Scotland-born Kenny Richey, 40, must be retried within 90 days or set free because he received incompetent counsel at his trial.

Richey was convicted of killing two-year-old Cynthia Collins, who died in a fire at her mother's apartment in the northwest Ohio town of Columbus Grove in 1986. Prosecutors said Richey intended to kill his ex-girlfriend, but ended up killing the child.

Richey, who has always protested his innocence, had the date set for his execution 13 times and at one point, came within an hour of being executed.

Many efforts have been made to have his conviction overturned. More than 150 British members of parliament signed a motion calling for his release and Amnesty International described his case as the "most compelling case of innocence on death row." He has also won support from the European parliament, a host of celebrities and even the Pope.

Richey's partner, Karen Torley, from Cambuslang on the outskirts of Glasgow, said when she learned the court's decision: "I am shocked but obviously delighted."

Amnesty International UK Director Kate Allen said: "This appeal victory is hugely welcome to all of those who have believed that for 18 years Kenny Richey has been denied justice in Ohio.

"Nobody should be sent to the living hell of death row, but Kenny Richey's 18-year ordeal has come after a flawed trial and serious concerns about the Ohio justice system. Winning the appeal is a vital step -- now we want to see a speedy process that will release Kenny as soon as possible."

The Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati ruled that Richey must be retried within 90 days or freed. The court said the handling of the case in trial "undermined our confidence in the reliability of Richey's conviction and sentence".

It said Richey's lawyers hired an unqualified forensic expert to investigate the fire and did not adequately challenge the state investigator's handling of the inquiry.

Prosecution lawyers are reviewing the ruling to determine whether or not to appeal.

Richey's lawyer, Kenneth Parsigian, called him in prison to tell him of the ruling.

"He was very excited," Parsigian said. "He just hooted ... and then said `thank you' -- three thank yous."

Parsigian said he hoped the state would decide not to retry Richey, given the court's conclusion that evidence was mishandled and the amount of time he has already served.

Richey, who grew up in Edinburgh, went to Ohio in the 1980s to stay with his father.

On the evening of June 29, 1986, he had been at a party, celebrating his imminent return home to become a nightclub doorman. A fire broke out later at a nearby apartment block. Cynthia Collins was trapped in her bedroom and died from smoke inhalation.

Richey was arrested and convicted of using petrol and paint thinner to start the fire.

The court was told that Richey started the fire out of jealousy.

During the three-day trial Richey twice rejected plea-bargain deals which would have spared his life if he had admitted starting the fire. In 1997 two witnesses who had claimed that Richey had threatened to burn down the apartment, retracted their statements.

Recent forensic evidence cast doubt on whether the fire was started deliberately at all.

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