Karen loves Kenny. But she is here and he is in the US, on Death Row

And she's not the only one. Stephen Khan meets the British women who have fallen for men awaiting execution in America

More than half a dozen British women claim to be in love with men waiting to die in American prisons. They write letters, spend hundreds of pounds on phone calls, and plan for weddings, not funerals.

Now three of them, Karen Richey, Xenia King and Jo Gibbs, have explained how their bizarre relationships blossomed.

For Ms Richey, 42, the prospect of being able to touch her partner, whose name she has already adopted, for the first time is now tantalisingly close.

Kenny Richey's murder conviction has already been overturned, and this week the US Senate will decide whether or not to uphold that decision. If it does so, the only Briton on death row will be transferred to a county prison - where security is less stringent and the couple could be allowed to embrace - to await a possible retrial.

Such a moment would mark the culmination of a decade-long romance. "I have thought about what it would be like to touch him," Ms Richey told The Independent on Sunday. "But it's almost too painful. I have to just wait and hope it happens."

Kenny Richey was convicted of starting a fire in 1986 that claimed the life of his ex-girlfriend's two-year-old daughter. The following year he was sentenced to die by electric shock.

Doubts were quickly raised, however. Ms Richey was appalled by what she read about the case. Soon afterwards came the letters, then the phone calls, then the visits.

"I guess people must think it's odd, but nowadays people meet on the internet," Ms Richey says. "People are more understanding now about how I can love someone I haven't touched.

"I didn't set out to fall for Kenny. I just wanted to be a friend to someone who was going to die."

Over time, though, the relationship developed.

"I gradually got a sense of the injustice that had been done. And the more that we communicated the closer we grew," she says.

So far, meetings have been confined to gazing through the perspex and speaking on an intercom at the Ohio jail where Kenny is held. The first time she went, she says: "Kenny was wearing an orange jumpsuit; he was cuffed and chained. But it was like meeting someone I had known all my life, we had already become so close."

Ms Richey fervently believes in her partner's innocence. Xenia King, however, admits the man she loves may be a killer.

In Real Life: My Death Row Lover, which screens on ITV1 tomorrow night, the 31-year-old from Bedfordshire says his guilt or innocence isirrelevant.

Ms King says she has a "spiritual connection" with John Marquard, who repeatedly stabbed a woman before drowning her and trying to cut off her head.

Marquard is on Florida's Death Row, and Ms King is now considering moving there to be with him, leaving her children behind in the UK. "In life you can't help who you fall in love with," she says.

Friends and family, though, found the relationship difficult to accept. "Some of them were shocked and taken aback," she says. "They used to say, 'Oh, my goodness. How can you? Don't you know what they've done?'

"But John and I have a spiritual connection that I have never had with anyone before."

Also involved with a man on Florida's Death Row is Jo Gibbs, 47, from Essex. Describing their relationship, she said: "You don't get all the bad things you have to put up with in a normal relationship: the bad moods, the dirty washing. When you're separated the feelings are more intense - always waiting for the next visit, when your life stops being on hold."

Meanwhile, Karen Richey hopes that by next week her life will be a little closer to normality. Recently she returned from a trip to visit Kenny with her son. "My son's teacher asked him if he'd been to Disneyland when he came back from holiday in America," she says. "He replied, 'No, miss: Death Row.'"

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