'I never let them get to me' says Scot who spent 18 years on death row in America

He came within hours of being executed, but Kenneth Richey never stopped maintaining his innocence. In an exclusive interview, the man whose has been backed by the Pope, Hollywood stars and now a US judge tells Sophie Goodchild of the terrible conditions he endured in prison, what helped him to survive, and what he plans to do when he finally gets out
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The Independent US

A Briton who faced the death sentence for 18 years in an American jail has spoken for the first time of his harrowing ordeal, saying he was "treated like an animal" for a crime he did not commit.

A Briton who faced the death sentence for 18 years in an American jail has spoken for the first time of his harrowing ordeal, saying he was "treated like an animal" for a crime he did not commit.

In an exclusive interview with The Independent on Sunday, Kenneth Richey, whose sentence was finally quashed last week after a campaign backed by the Pope, Hollywood stars and Tony Blair, revealed he had been shackled and handcuffed for 23 hours a day as he faced death by lethal injection.

Mr Richey, now 40, who has always denied starting a fire that killed his ex-girlfriend's daughter, also revealed that he planned to mount a campaign against the death penalty following a US judge's ruling that he must be re-tried or freed within 90 days.

"It feels good for everyone finally to see that I'm innocent," Mr Richey said. "All those people who said 'he's guilty', all those doubters. They have to eat their words. They've taken too long because the system is screwed up."

In a telephone interview from the Mansfield Correctional Institute , Ohio, Mr Richey said: "I went 'whoop, whoop!' when they told me the news but I'll only be happy when they open the door and let me out."

Speaking in a broad Scottish accent, which remained undimmed despite his years in jail, Mr Richey said that he had managed to remain strong because of the support of his fiancée and family.

"I never let it get to me, and what kept me going was the support I've received from my wife, family and friends and loved ones. The fact I didn't want these bastards to get away with what they did. But people here do crack. There have been guys here commit suicide and who could not take the conditions any more.

"What I've missed the most is to be able to walk up to my front door and go anywhere I've wanted, to go shopping. Just the basic things. I just want to get home to Scotland and be with my wife [fiancée]."

The former Marine's case was described by Amnesty International as "the most compelling case of innocence on death row" and attracted widespread support from campaigners against miscarriages of justice.

Brought up in Edinburgh by his Scottish mother and American father, Mr Richey emigrated to the US in 1982 when his parents divorced. His ordeal began four years later, when, aged 21, he was arrested for arson and the murder of two-year-old Cynthia Collins, the daughter of his former lover, Hope Collins.

At his trial, the prosecution alleged that Mr Richey was motivated by jealousy and that he deliberately used paint-stripper or petrol to set fire to the apartment below the child's bedroom window in an attempt to kill Ms Collins and her new lover. Instead, the prosecution alleged, he killed the child.

In 1986, he was found guilty and sentenced to death. Over the following years, he was within hours of being executed a number of times, but each time his lawyers succeeded in appealing for stays of execution.

However, forensic experts now say that no accelerants were used in the fire and that it was most likely caused by a discarded cigarette or even by the little girl herself, who witnesses said was fascinated with matches and had previously started two accidental fires.

The testimony of prosecution witnesses has also been discredited. At the trial, they claimed to have overheard Richey saying he was "going to burn down the building". But one has since admitted that she had never heard Mr Richey actually use these words. They were just gossip. Another witness has admitted she said what she thought the prosecution wanted her to say.

At his trial, Mr Richey refused to plea bargain. Admitting a lesser charge could have meant he was freed after 10 years. But Mr Richey, who only won his attempt to be recognised as a British citizen in 2003, has always said he was prepared to die for what he believed in: his innocence. He was not prepared to admit to a crime he had not committed.

Karen Richey, who has taken his surname although they are not yet married, said she suffered nightmares that he was being executed.

"Kenny got to the point where he just did not care any more - it was 'kill me or let me go'," said Karen Richey, who lives in Glasgow and has known her fiancé for 10 years. She started writing to him after hearing about his case, and has visited him once a year. Conjugal rights were not allowed by the prison authorities.

"He had already decided on haggis, mash, tatties and neeps for his last meal," she said. "You are always imagining the worst and having nightmares of him being strapped down to the gurney."

She was stunned when she finally heard last week that he could be set free in weeks. Mr Richey was allowed to telephone her from the Ohio jail. "There was crying, screaming, shouting, the lot. But we both fought long and hard for this moment. It's all been worth it. There were times when we thought this would never happen."

After the call from Mr Richey, Karen phoned his mother, Eileen, 60, in Edinburgh to tell her the news. "I had to repeat it five times," said Karen. "She just couldn't take it in. Then she got all emotional."

The case has been cited by anti-death penalty campaigners as proof that the US should scrap state executions - the subject of furious debate in crime-ridden American states. It comes after public defenders in the state of Connecticut succeeded yesterday in winning a last-minute stay of execution for Michael Ross, 45, who has confessed to killing eight women and girls after raping them.

Adam Goodman, from the legal firm Lovells, who acted for Mr Richey in the UK, said the appeal court decision highlighted a "massive failure" by the defence lawyers at the original trial in handling the forensic evidence.

Mr Goodman said: "The entire legal team were pleased to see that the Court of Appeals recognised after 18 years that there were serious questions about the propriety of Mr Richey's original conviction and sentence."

Mr Richey, meanwhile, has indicated that he plans to swap his prison cell for the open, mountainous Scottish highlands when he is eventually released. "We just want to be a normal family and set up home together there," said Karen.

DEATH SENTENCES

  • William Kemmler was the first to be executed by electric chair in the US on 6 August 1890. Death took eight minutes.
  • The longest spell on Texas's death row was 24 years before Excell White was finally killed in 1999. The average wait is 10 years.
  • A lethal injection costs $86 (£46) a dose in Texas. A muscle relaxant collapses the lungs and a drug stops the heart. Death occurs in seven minutes.
  • The most popular last meal for US death row inmates is French fries, burgers, ice cream and Coke.
  • Seventy-eight countries and territories use the death penalty, while 118 have abolished it in law or practice.
  • Official records show 726 people were executed in China in 2003, but one Chinese legislator suggested last year that the actual total was "nearly 10,000".
  • Of the 23 people executed in Texas last year, 12 were black, eight were white and three Hispanic. The state lists the final words of those who are executed on its website.
  • At present, about 3,400 people in US jails awaiting execution.

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