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Heart problem delays release of Scot on death row

By Andrew Gumbel

Kenny Richey, the Scotsman on the verge of freedom from an Ohio prison after two decades on death row, has been taken to hospital with heart trouble, forcing the postponement of a court hearing that would have released him and let him go home for Christmas.

Mr Richey, who has a history of heart disease, was described as being in a stable condition at a hospital near the county jail where he has been incarcerated since August.

Doctors were planning to insert a catheter to free up an apparent blockage before releasing him, probably in the next day or two.

That, though, will be too late for the court hearing, originally scheduled for yesterday, at which Mr Richey was planning to plead no contest to three relatively minor charges in exchange for his freedom after 21 years behind bars.

He was originally accused of deliberately starting a fire that killed the two-year-old daughter of an ex-girlfriend, but successfully demonstrated – after years of appeals and a staggering 13 appointments with the executioner – that there was no conclusive evidence the fire was arson at all and that he actually made strenuous efforts to save the baby.

He left death row four months ago after a federal appeals court said he must either be retried or released. Ohio prosecutors said at first they would retry him for murder in March, then offered the plea deal in which all mention of either arson or murder was dropped.

Mr Richey had originally hoped for complete exoneration, but decided he would prefer to plead no contest to attempted involuntary manslaughter and two other charges than to spend several more months behind bars.

"This is about the strongest admission we are going to get from Ohio that they were wrong," his most ardent supporter and fiancee, Karen Torley, said.

Mr Richey had been planning to celebrate his release with his brother Steve, who lives in Ohio, before flying home to Scotland today to spend Christmas with his mother.

Instead, he woke up with chest pains in the middle of the night and, after alerting the authorities at the Putnam County jail, was rushed to hospital by ambulance.

Mr Richey has had several cardiac episodes in the past five years, including two full-blown heart attacks – raising serious questions about the effects of long-term incarceration on his health.

"This is a terrible tragedy for Kenny. My thoughts are with him and his family at this time," said the prominent British civil rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith, who has played a role in his defence.

"His health has deteriorated throughout his time on death row. I cannot imagine the stresses and strains of being an innocent man on death row for 21 years, and they have clearly taken their toll. We are all just hoping he makes a speedy recovery and is able to return to the UK as soon as it is safe for him to do so."

Mr Richey's lead lawyer, Ken Parsigian, was more sanguine. "We did want to get this over with," he told local reporters in Ohio. "But it's better that it happened now than in the air."

The hearing has been postponed until 8 January, although Mr Parsigian said the date could be brought forward once his client's state of health becomes a little clearer.

Steve Richey, Kenny's brother, said his brother had been complaining of headaches a couple of weeks ago and saw a doctor who told him he was fine. "I guess it was the stress. It had to have been," Steve said.

For Amnesty International and other campaigning groups, Richey's case has been a prime example of the failings of the US criminal justice system and its culture of capital punishment. They argued – successfully – that he did not have adequate representation at his original trial, in violation of the US Constitution's Sixth Amendment.

Back in 1986, Mr Richey was living with his father in the tiny Ohio town of Columbus Grove and just days away from leaving the country when the fatal fire broke out. In the run-up to his trial, he refused a plea bargain that would have spared him execution, because he did not want to admit guilt for a crime he did not commit.

American legal system on trial

Krishna Maharaj

The British businessman was convicted of murdering two Jamaicans in a Miami hotel in 1986 in a case riddled with flaws, including a corrupt trial judge and an incompetent lawyer. His sentence was commuted to life imprisonment in 2002 and he is still fighting to clear his name.

Joe Amrine

The Missouri man was framed for a jailhouse murder in 1986. After the only three prosecution witnesses recanted their testimony, the state tried to argue Amrine should be executed anyway. He was released in 2003.

Ernest Ray Willis

In 1987 the Texan was accused of setting a fatal fire. In 2004, it was determined the fire was due to an electrical fault and he was released.

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