Home Affairs Correspondent
A leading human rights lawyer last night said legal advice given to John Major that there were no grounds for a plea of clemency for Nick Ingram was "plainly wrong and incompetent".
Geoffrey Robertson, QC, asked for a full investigation and said whoever gave the advice should be called to account. "It is quite scandalous that incorrect legal advice was given to the Prime Minister over a matter of life and death."
There were two rulings - one by the Law Lords sitting as the Privy Council and one by the European Court of Human Rights - which dictate that Ingram should be reprieved.
In July 1989, the Strasbourg court stopped the UK from extraditing to Virginia an escapee, wanted for a double murder. The court said Jens Soering must not be extradited because he would face a "very long period of time spent on death row in such extreme conditions with ever present and mounting anguish of awaiting execution . . ." Such a prolonged detention amounted to cruel and inhuman treatment.
Eighteen months ago the Privy Council saved all inmates in Jamaica who had been on death row for five years or more. It ruled that to hold them for so long before hanging them amounted to cruel and inhuman treatment. In other words, prisoners had to be executed before five years were up or not at all.
The Lords noted that the death penalty in the UK, before its abolition, had always been carried out promptly. Delays in terms of years were unheard of.
The lower courts in the US have always rejected similar arguments, but recently a judge in the Supreme Court has urged them to take into account the Privy Council ruling.
Yesterday Mr Robertson said: "It is quite plain from the Privy Council and European rulings that there are legal grounds for commuting the death sentence."