A mum on death row

Linda Carty is due to be executed for a crime that many believe she didn't commit. Can her British passport save her? Robert Verkaik reports

Time is running out for British death-row prisoner Linda Carty. Unless the Government makes a formal intervention in her case she faces execution in Texas for a crime which her family believe she could not have committed. The case against the 45-year-old teacher has also troubled human-rights lawyers in both Britain and America who claim she is the victim of a conspiracy by three co-defendants.

Carty is accused of planning the kidnap of her pregnant neighbour, Joana Rodriguez, from a Houston apartment so that she could take her newborn child. Prosecutors allege she and three others tied the woman up with duct tape, taped a bag over her head and put her in the boot of a car, where she suffocated. But lawyers for the human-rights charity Reprieve, which is helping to fund Carty's defence, say her alleged motivation for wanting to "cut the child out" of Rodriguez was "bizarre" - saving a broken relationship with her abusive husband whom she believed was having an affair with the victim.

Her lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, who has more than 20 years experience in US death-row cases, says Rodriguez had given birth to her child four days before the attack. Carty lived just two doors away from Rodriguez in the same apartment block and would have known that she was no longer pregnant.

As a British national, Carty is pinning her hopes on the UK Government, which she wants to make greater efforts to have the case re-opened. Stafford Smith says that if the special relationship between Britain and America means anything then it must be put to use in this case.

Carty was born on the Caribbean island of St Kitts to Anguillan parents, and holds a UK dependent territory passport. There she qualified as a teacher before moving to America in 1981 where she studied to become a pharmacologist. But in 1988 she was the victim of a rape and became pregnant. The child was given up for adoption. Later, she found herself in an abusive relationship and was a victim of domestic violence.

In 2001 she was arrested after three men broke into a Houston apartment, beating a man called Raymundo Cabrera and abducting his partner, Joana Rodriguez, 25, and Ray, her four-day-old baby. Ray was later found unharmed in a car, but Rodriguez, gagged and tied, was found dead from suffocation in the boot of a second car.

The three men then testified against Carty, accusing her of planning the kidnap. Carty was convicted of murder in Houston in February 2002 and condemned to die by lethal injection. But Carty's lawyers now believe that state prosecutors dropped murder charges against her co-defendants in return for their testifying.

Carty may have been especially vulnerable to evidence from criminals. She had worked as an informer for the Drugs Enforcement Agency, supplying information which led to seizures worth many thousands of dollars and the imprisonment of dealers. All three co-defendants are believed to have been involved in drugs rackets. None of this has been explored by the courts.

There are further disturbing aspects of this case. Vera Baird QC, Labour MP for Redcar, who hosted a press conference at Westminster last month, said her "immediate impressions" were that the death of the victim would be manslaughter under British law. Carty's mental state should have been assessed as she was "battered and abused", while the "hostile animus" of the co-defendants called into question the power of their evidence.

She added: "I have to say as an erstwhile Old Bailey criminal lawyer, [the facts] make my flesh creep with suspicion."

Another lawyer working on the case has travelled to St Kitts where they have taken "tremendously positive" character statements from the island's prime minister, who was at the same school with Carty, and the former education minister.

Richard Bourke, one of the lawyers investigating the case, who travelled to St Kitts, said it was "heart-breaking" to hear such forceful testimonies from people who felt Carty was incapable of committing the crime she has been convicted of.

Stafford Smith fears that his client could face the same fate as two British men who were executed in America before all the evidence had been properly examined by the courts. Jackie Elliott was executed by lethal injection in February last year after the US courts refused to accept the results of an investigation by Stafford Smith and his colleagues, including DNA samples, on the grounds that his previous lawyers should have raised the matter when they had the chance. Tracy Housel was executed in Georgia in 2002 despite last-minute pleas by Jack Straw and Vera Baird, who appeared before the Georgia appeals board and read out a statement by Tony Blair.

Part of any renewed appeal will include criticism of Carty's original defence team, who Stafford Smith claims failed to make proper inquiries about her background. "Unfortunately, [her defence lawyer] has stated in an affidavit to the court that he didn't talk to her about the facts until they were a month into trial. He talked to her just once, and unfortunately, that shows. There has never been a defence investigation which has been thorough.

"We desperately need the resources in order to do the case properly and look into what really happened, and for that we desperately need time."

But the new lawyers have precious little time to carry out their own inquiries. Stafford Smith says that if they fail to overturn Carty's capital sentence "she could be dead within 18 months".

The case has also drawn the support of dotcom millionairess Martha Lane Fox, who has been working closely with Reprieve, the British charity that campaigns against the death penalty, since she stepped down from her internet company lastminute.com.

She said last week: "The case is a powerful argument against the death penalty. I want to do all I can because I am stridently opposed to the death penalty. The specifics of this case become more striking because Linda Carty is a woman."

Since 1976, 10 women have been executed in the US. Today, there are around 50 women on death row awaiting execution.

Last month, Linda Carty's daughter, Jovelle Joubert, 24, travelled to London to make a personal appeal to Tony Blair to intervene in the case so that the legal team, which includes Jeremy Carver, head of international law at Clifford Chance, are allowed more time to challenge the prosecution. She said: "My mum's innocent and all we are asking for is the opportunity to prove it. I would hope that [Blair] would help her, to give us that chance to prove she had nothing to do with it. If he would just help me save my mum's life."

Joubert, who is getting married this year, says she vividly remembers the moment she was told of what had happened to her mother. "I was in Florida visiting my dad when I got a call from my grandmother. I knew something was seriously wrong because she was crying and then she told me mum had been arrested for murder."

Joubert, who visits her mother in Gatesville prison as often as she can, says she finds the conditions of her detention very distressing. "When I visit her she has to stay in a metal cage with a glass front. All I want to do is hug her and kiss her - but they won't even let me touch her."