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Black 'murderer' who did not kill faces needle of death

UNLESS there is an unexpected last- minute change of heart, the state of Utah will have administered a lethal injection early today to William Andrews, a black man who was convicted of murder even though he did not kill anyone.

The execution will constitute an ugly final chapter to a case which has attracted international attention, not least because Utah, which has only a small black population, generally does not execute white murderers.

While many details of the case are bitterly disputed, no one disputes that Andrews, 37, was party to a hideous crime. It happened in April, 1974, when six black men drove two vans into a hi-fi store in Ogden, Utah, intending to rob it. For four hours Andrews and an accomplice, Dale Selby Pierre, brutalised and tortured the shop's three employees and two other people. Pierre made them drink a highly caustic drain-cleaning fluid which Andrews, then 19, poured into cups. Pierre kicked a ballpoint pen into the ear of one victim.

Andrews was not present during the murders. He had left the room when Pierre shot the victims, killing three of them. This fact has been central to Andrews' defence, but it did not impress the country's judiciary. Both federal and state courts have ruled that criminals who do not physically kill, but who play a major role in a murder, can be executed. Both were subsequently condemned; Pierre was executed in 1987.

Civil liberties groups, which have led a campaign to save Andrews' life, have emphasised that the jury that convicted him were all white, and most were Mormons - at a time when the church did not allow blacks to become ministers. The trial was also marred by a particularly nasty, and potentially prejudicial, incident in which someone slipped a note to a juror during sentencing which read: 'Hang the Nigger's' (sic).

The Andrews case has become the focus of intense passions in Utah, where blacks (who comprise less than 1 per cent of the population) have held numerous protest marches. The racial overtones are strong - the defendants were all black; the victims, police, judge, jury and prosecutor were all white. The only black person in the jury pool was excluded. The National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People has said the whole case is 'infected with racism'. They, and others, have emphasised that white murderers in Utah almost always get a life sentence with parole.

Andrews' lawyers have filed numerous appeals, and received a letter of support from the Pope. But it appears that the cries of outrage have been to no avail. On Tuesday the US Supreme Court voted 7-2 to reject an appeal. An hour later, the state's Supreme Court voted 4-1 against an application for a stay of execution, although it ordered Utah's Board of Pardons to provide details of its reasons for refusing Andrews a second clemency hearing - a manoeuvre which could prompt the board itself to apply for a stay.

Some support for Andrews has come from whites, including Mormons. Boyer Jarvis, a retired professor, who is a Mormon, wrote to The Salt Lake Tribune, saying that Utah had 'two kinds of justice - one for members of the white majority, another for blacks'. Early today the world will discover whether Mr Jarvis is, tragically, right.