The man who can't escape death row

After 21 years in prison, Kenny Richey was freed last year. But life on the outside has been marked by alcoholism, violence and despair. By Mark Hughes
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The Independent Online

When Kenny Richey arrived back in Britain in January, he said all the things expected of a man who had just been released after 21 years on America's death row. He spoke of starting a family, getting a house, a job and making a new life for himself. "I just want to enjoy being truly alive again," he said.

Last weekend, his days of freedom reached 200. Even if Mr Richey was aware of the landmark, he didn't have much time to dwell on it. On Friday, he had to be coaxed down from a rooftop in Edinburgh after slashing his wrists and then threatening to jump. He was arrested and released on Saturday. Then, on Sunday, he was beaten up by a boxer after a drunken confrontation outside his rented flat.

These were the latest in a series of unfortunate and unseemly incidents that have blighted the time in which Mr Richey has been a free man.

During nearly seven months of freedom, he has rarely been out of the headlines. He spends his days gambling, drinking lager and smoking cigarettes. He has even been photographed apparently snorting cocaine.

He has no job. His sister won't speak to him and he rarely sees his mother. He remarried his American wife but then cheated on her. His new girlfriend was a 16-year-old schoolgirl but she has since been replaced by a 26-year-old wannabe porn star. And he has been diagnosed with oral cancer. He may have a new life but it is not one that makes him happy.

Sentenced to death in 1987 at the age of 23 for the murder of two-year-old Cynthia Collins, Mr Richey was released 21 years later in January 2008 after agreeing to a plea bargain which meant he pleaded "no contest" to charges of attempted involuntary manslaughter, among others.

The nature of his release meant he was entitled to no compensation. His lack of money was his main, but not his sole, problem. He was set free into a world that bore no resemblance to the one he had left at the gates of an Ohio prison in 1987. He had no idea what the internet was and couldn't use a mobile phone.

His stuttering readjustment has suffered many setbacks. It's certainly tragic, if perhaps somewhat self-inflicted but, according to the experts and those who know him best, it was not unforeseen.

Karen Torely was a long-time campaigner for Kenny's case during his time on death row. At one point, the pair became engaged. She says she has watched her ex-fiancé's struggle to adapt to life on the outside with much sadness.

She said: "I knew he would have trouble adjusting and it was actually something we spoke about the night before he left prison. I told him I was worried he would come out and be like a man possessed. I feared he would start hanging around with the wrong sorts of people and get himself in all sorts of trouble.

"He assured me it wouldn't happen, but he came out and did everything he promised he wouldn't. It was disappointing because I thought he'd come out and make something of himself in a good way. But he chose to go down a different route."

That different route currently involves a daily routine that revolves around alcohol, according to Ms Torley. "He gets up every morning and buys a carry-out at the shop," she explained. "People will come round to his flat and he'll just drink all day. I've told him loads of times to sort himself out and I think he wants to.

"He had big plans to get a job when he came out. He wanted to be a photographer, then he spoke about working for the council's cleansing department, and then he said he wanted to be a bus driver. His problem is that he's pretty much unemployable at the moment.

"He was locked up at 23 and now he's 43 and he wants the years back. He acts like a rebellious teenager. His body grew up but his mind didn't and he is now chasing those lost years. He wants to be 23 again, but it's not going to happen. It's an unrealistic dream. He can't have those years back but in chasing them he has upset a lot of people who care a lot about him. His poor mother is devastated at what has happened to Kenny since his release."

John McManus, from the Miscarriages of Justice Organisation, said: "As soon as he landed in Britain he should have been taken straight to a trauma counsellor, not to a load of exclusive interviews with the The People and the News of the World. It was like a circus freak show.

"I phoned Max Clifford and told him this. I tried to tell him he was dealing with nitro-glycerine and Kenny could explode at any second because that's what happens when someone in released so quickly back into society.

"Kenny was in prison for 21 years and people like him need to be released back into society very slowly. I always compare it to a deep-sea diver. If you bring them up too quickly they get the bends."

Dr Adrian Grounds, a senior lecturer in forensic psychiatry at the Institute of Criminology in Cambridge, said: "It is common among people who have been wrongfully imprisoned to have substantial problems adjusting after they are released.

"They often have psychiatric problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder or depression and use alcohol or drugs to try to cope."

Speaking yesterday, Mr Richey said: "Trying to fit back into normality has been much harder than I thought. It's been very hard and I know it could have gone a damn sight better and I shoulder some of that blame myself."

He added: "I know that I have been trying to recapture my lost years. I've been trying to catch up with all that has been taken from me but I can't and I've finally accepted that. I've lost a great deal but know now that what I have lost I cannot get back. It's hard to take and I'm very bitter but I need to get on with my life. I'm speaking to a counsellor, it's going all right, but it could be better."

Mr Richey insisted he doesn't enjoy being written about in newspapers, but says he has no regrets about his selling his story.

He said: "After 21 years in jail my first experience of being back in Britain was working with those papers and seeing them write bullshit stories about me. But I don't regret it because I needed the money. The only thing I regret is not being cannier with the money."