Anatomy of a brutal murder that ruled out clemency plea

John Major found it impossible to plead for Nick Ingram after hearing how he killed his victim. Steve Boggan reports Steve Boggan

It is difficult to imagine what was going through Nick Ingram's mind as he tied the Sawyers to the trunk of a tree and pointed his gun at J C Sawyer's head.

It had been a strange day. He had been involved in two burglaries - one at his father's home - and there had been the drinking, the row with the brother, the residual bitterness surrounding his unhappy childhood. But there he stood, some time after 8pm on a hot, sticky 3 June almost 12 years ago, his father's .38 calibre long-barrelled revolver in his hand, telling the couple he was going to kill them. He had to, he said. They could identify him.

He had lashed the Sawyers, both in their mid-fifties, to a tree in woods near their home; he had marched them there at gunpoint, with Mr Sawyer in bare feet, pleading for his heart pills. "You won't need them any more," Ingram is supposed to have told him. And he leant down, placed the gun to the back of J C's head and pulled the trigger. A moment later, he did the same to Mary Eunice Sawyer but astonishingly failed to kill her.

These are just the basic details on which Foreign Office staff are understood to have been briefed before advising John Major not to make an appeal for clemency on Ingram's behalf. Ingram's lawyers dispute much of the evidence. They say they can prove that he blacked out on the day of the crime, that he was wrongly identified by Mrs Sawyer and that another man may have played a part in the killing.

To a large extent, however, their arguments are academic. However culpable Ingram is, the crime for which he was convicted and the weight of the evidence against him make intervention fraught with political difficulties.

On the day of the murder, Ingram, then 19, and a 16-year-old friend, Kevin Plummer, had bought beer and driven to a lake north of Atlanta to swim. Ingram was an unhappy young man with a serious alcohol and drug problem. Born in Cambridge, he moved to Georgia with his father, Johnny, an American serviceman, after his father and mother, Ann, divorced.

In her letter asking for John Major's intervention, Mrs Ingram said she felt guilty about being parted from Nick when he was a child. She moved to Georgia and remarried her first husband some years ago, but it would appear that, as far as the young Nick Ingram was concerned, the damage had been done. He had decided to leave home and needed some money.

According to records at the Georgia Department of Corrections, Ingram and Plummer drove to Marietta, near their homes, and broke into a house, tearing down the door and stealing a TV set and hi-fi equipment. Ingram drove to his brother's home and tried to sell him the TV. When the brother refused, Ingram threw the set out of a second-floor window. Next, according to prosecution records, Ingram went to his father's home and took his revolver.

Mr Ingram senior later told police that he had not given Ingram permission to take it. In police records, therefore, the visit is recorded as a burglary.

Mike Light, spokesman for the Department of Corrections, said Ingram and Plummer failed to sell the gun to a friend. So Ingram told Plummer to drive to a house in the Black Jack Mountain area of Cobb County. There, he said, was a car and he knew where the keys were hidden. They would drive to California. But there was no car. Instead, Ingram directed Plummer to the Sawyers' home. Here, Plummer said, and the prosecution accepted (using Plummer to give evidence against Ingram), he got scared and went home.

But the defence says Ingram has no memory of what happened because he has a clinical condition that causes him to black out when he drinks. It claims Plummer may have stayed; and that a bloodstained flip-flop sandal was later found in his car, proving he was there.

It was 7.15pm. J C had been working in the garden; Mary Eunice, the owner of a small alterations shop in Cartersville, had come home at 6.20pm and prepared dinner. She was the first to hear Ingram at the door. Mr Light said he demanded to use the phone and shouted and swore at Mrs Sawyer. "Mr Sawyer came and pushed Ingram back out on to the porch," said Mr Light . "Then Ingram pulled out his gun and told them to get back inside or he would blow their heads off. He demanded money and their car keys. He kept the gun against Mr Sawyer's head and then noticed Mrs Sawyer looking at his tattoos. He said words to the effect: `Go on, remember the tattoos. If that doesn't get you killed now, it will later.' "

After demands for money and threats, Mrs Sawyer fetched $60 from her bedroom. Mr Sawyer tried to get up from a chair, but, according to prosecution records, Ingram fired a shot between his feet. "When she came back, Mrs Sawyer begged Ingram to let her husband have his medication, but Ingram said he wouldn't be needing it any more," said Mr Light. "He told Mr Sawyer to get some rope off the back of his truck and he forced them to walk into woods at the back of the house.He made them sit with their backs against a tree trunk and tied them to it. The victims were pleading for their lives.

"He took off his shirt and tore it in two and used the parts to gag them with. According to Mrs Sawyer, he told them he would have to kill them because they could identify him. Then he hit Mr Sawyer with his gun and fired one shot into his head.

"He turned and fired at Mrs Sawyer's head, but, as Mr Sawyer slumped on the other side of the tree, she was jolted by the rope and pulled to one side. The bullet struck her crown. There was blood but she was still conscious and she had the wherewithal to feign death."

The defence argues that the shirt used to gag the Sawyers was Plummer's, but Plummer says he lent it to Ingram earlier in the day. What it is not in dispute is that Ingram stole the Sawyers' truck and fled through Mississippi, Alabama and Colorado before surfacing in California. Along the way, he met a woman, befriended her and stole her car and handbag. And, with another man, he picked up a hitchhiker, only to steal his money, strip-search him and tie him to the post of a bridge.

He was caught by police, drunk and slumped over the wheel of the stolen car on Interstate 80 near North Platte in Nebraska. He gave a false name, but the woman whose car he had stolen had his real name and gave it to police. "He later told officers that he was probably wanted for two murders in Cobb County," said Mr Light. "That makes us doubt that he had a blackout and has no memory of that evening."

It is understood that these details were given to John Major, giving him a dilemma. The Prime Minister is known to oppose the death penalty but he also has to consider the "special" relationship between Britain and the US. Politically, it would be difficult for Mr Major to intervene even in less brutal circumstances. In this case, it was considered impossible.

Mrs Sawyer and Plummer both place Ingram at murder scene.

Mrs Sawyer identified Ingram as only attacker.

Forensic tests show Ingram's father's gun as murder weapon.

Ingram went on run - suggests he was aware of crime and did not black out.

When arrested, Ingram told police he was probably wanted for two murders in Cobb County. Did not know Mrs Sawyer had survived.

Medical expert testified Ingram has blackouts after alcohol; defence argues that at worst, he's guilty of manslaughter.

Mrs Sawyer took weeks to identify Ingram. Description differed from his appearance.

Shirt used to tie up the Sawyers owned by Plummer. No forensic tests carried out on bloodstained flip-flop found in his car.

Plummer failed lie-detector test. Defence says he should not have got immunity for testifying against Ingram.

Ingram knew he was wanted for murder because grandmother told him by phone.

It is difficult for me to find the words to express what I want to say today. Let me begin by thanking everyone so very much for taking time out of busy lives to think of me, and voice support for me in these very dark hours. For so very long, I have felt so alone, sitting and waiting here on Death Row. I had my family; and I had my attorney. Then people began to reach out for me. I think of - and thank - particularly Betty Defazio, from Bournemouth, who has written to me all these years. And now I read and hear of a mighty flood, a wave of friends who I may never know, trying to save my life. I cannot say how much it means to me.

My family is everything to me, and I hate to see them in pain. For this reason, I have to respond to the letter to my mother from Mr Major, for it caused her great suffering. She had gone way out on a limb for me, because she knows I do not like her to beg for anything for me. Mr Major told her that there were no "proper grounds" to intervene in my case. Even though I desperately need help, perhaps it is true that Mr Major owes me nothing personally. However, he owes my mother an explanation why my Government has no "proper grounds" to support her plea on behalf of her son. My mother deserves respect from our Government even if Mr Major would rather have a placid visit to Washington.

I do not want to die in Georgia's electric chair. I hate to see the suffering all of this causes so many people - my family, the family of J.C. Sawyer, and so many others. As I have said to my lawyers for years, I hate to go through all this without being able to face the courts and tell my side. At least I have got to write to Mrs Sawyer, and I hope she will not believe me to be the terrible animal that the prosecutors and the press pretend.

If I do die, I hope it is not for nothing. I hope people will see that a ritualistic killing in the electric chair solves nothing. I hope all of you do not forget, and keep up your struggle for other people.

I thank you again, and may your God be with you. At least, I know, a part of me will be somewhere else, in a better place. I hope this does not happen. And I feel your support is all that stands between me and death at this point. Please keep it up.

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