Saga born of legal morass that saga

Rupert Cornwell explains how the judicial system for appeals operates works for
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The ghoulish saga of Nick Ingram's is the latest illustration of America's intricate judicial system - born of a desire to ensure maximum fairness but which in capital cases can turn the last days and hours of a man's life into a grisly game of legal ping-pong.

There have been, and will be in the future, others like it. Prisoners have been unstrapped from the electric chair as a last minute stay was granted.

The man who performed that role on Thursday night, senior US District Judge Horace Ward, granted Ingram's last stay of execution in 1989. Earlier this week he turned down an appeal from Ingram's lawyers that the electric chair was a "cruel and unusual punishment" which violated the US Constitution.

That, to anyone unfamiliar with the labyrinthine ways of the American legal system, might have signified the end of his involvement. But on Thursday, Clive Stafford Smith, Ingram's indefatigable British lawyer and a specialist in exploiting every last inch of wriggle room in the system, was back before him.

This time he was asking for a new evidentiary hearing on whether Ingram, who had tried to commit suicide after his arrest in 1983, was so sedated by the psychotropic drug Thorazine during his trial he was unable to show the jury remorse. If that hearing goes Ingram's way, the case will have to be re-opened. After 12 years on death row, it will be back to go.

Just 24 hours earlier, Mr Stafford Smith had seen the same argument rejected by a state judge. But that did not deter him. The federal and state systems are different things. For Ingram, the latter was exhausted on Thursday when the Georgia Supreme Court rejected his last appeal. But in capital cases the federal ladder offers the best prospects for a desperate defence. For one thing, judgeships are Presidential appointments; Democratic Presidents will tend to pick more liberal judges with doubts about capital punishment. Second, the federal government did not resume executions along with the states in 1977.

No federal prisoner has been put to death since 1963 - although that could change soon. The "drug kingpin" laws seem about to bring about their first execution, while the 1994 Crime Bill makes more than 70 new crimes capital offences.

Once a plea is dismissed in a district court, the next rung is the federal appeals court. Finally, there is the US Supreme Court, in Washington. Last ditch appeals are directed to one justice. If his ruling is challenged, the decision will be taken among all nine justices. Almost never will the Supreme Court interfere at the 11th hour and overrule lower federal courts in a capital case.

But the possibilities for procrastination are endless. A resourceful lawyer may take three issues and appeal each before, say, three courts - giving him nine chances of a stay.

But by their ingenuity, are not people like Mr Stafford Smith helping inflict "cruel and unusual punishment" on the likes of Ingram ? He insists not. Even if the process ends with Ingram eventually going to the electric chair, "It would have been worth it".

"Nicky wants to have contributed something to the cause. And he'd prefer 27 consecutive life sentences to death," he said.