Cult 'conspiracy' women ask for trial in Britain: CPS urged to take on case to beat extradition. Steve Boggan reports

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The Independent Online
BRITISH prosecutors are to be asked to try two English women wanted for conspiracy to murder a US attorney in Oregon.

Lawyers for Susan Hagan and Sally Croft will take the rare step of asking the Crown Prosecution Service to take up the case against the women, in a final attempt to avoid their extradition to America, where they believe a fair trial is impossible.

Ms Croft, 44, an accountant, and Ms Hagan, 47, an aromatherapist, were members of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh sect in Antelope, Oregon, in the mid-1980s when a number of members allegedly plotted to kill Charles Turner, who was investigating the sect.

Last Friday, they avoided extradition until 6 June when Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, rescinded an order that would have led to them being handed over to US marshals within eight hours. A growing number of cross-party peers who have begun to lobby on their behalf feel that their only chance of a fair trial would be if it were in England.

Andrew McCooey, their solicitor, will make an application to the CPS this week under Section 4 of the Offences Against the Persons Act 1861, which provides for British citizens wanted abroad for incitement or conspiracy to murder to be tried in England.

He said: 'The women have never been afraid of a trial because they are innocent. But trial by media has already begun in America and it would be impossible to find an unbiased jury.' If found guilty before an Oregon judge, they could each be jailed for 20 years.

The sect's unpopularity in the state intensified after several members were convicted of fraud, wire-tapping and poisoning diners in a restaurant. Only one admitted conspiracy relating to Mr Turner, but as part of plea bargains, others implicated Ms Hagan and Ms Croft five years after they left America for Britain.

Mr Turner, now a part- time judge, was never harmed. But last month, two days before the British women were to have been extradited, he said in a television interview in Portland that he had had a premonition that members of the sect would kill him. He said he slept with a shotgun under his bed because he was so afraid. Mr Turner did not name Ms Hagan or Ms Croft, but the makers of the programme admitted it was timed to coincide with their return to Oregon. One journalist said the interview was recorded about six months ago.

Colleen Scissors, the federal public defender for Oregon, is examining a recording of the interview and considering the implications for a fair trial. In Britain, no prejudicial reporting of a person's case is allowed between charging and trial, but there are no such restrictions in the US.

Ms Croft said: 'I have nothing to fear from a trial because we are innocent and the evidence against us is so obviously spurious, having been gained as part of plea bargains. But our best chance of a fair trial would be over here, where the public has not had its opinions coloured by the media.'