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Published: Thursday, 1/27/2005

Crusader for Briton's case elated, exhausted

BY GEORGE J. TANBER
BLADE STAFF WRITER

The word Karen Richey has been waiting 10 years to hear came to her Glasgow, Scotland, home Tuesday at 3 p.m. when Britain's Foreign Office called with the news.

A U.S. appeals court in Ohio had overturned the murder conviction of Kenny Richey, 40, who has been on death row since 1987 for the arson death of 2-year-old Cynthia Collins of Columbus Grove, Ohio, in rural Putnam County.

"I said, 'Are you sure?' But logic told me the Foreign Office doesn't call you for nothing," Ms. Richey said.

She has directed a decade-long crusade on Richey's behalf that has gained international attention, in part, because he is the sole Briton on death row in the United States.

Yesterday morning Ms. Richey, 41, who changed her name to Richey in 2000 to gain visitation rights with him, awoke at 4 a.m. to find reporters camped in front of her home. Her phone began ringing soon after and rarely stopped. The story about the court decision ran on the front pages of newspapers all across Great Britain.

"They are going nuts [around here]. But it's wonderful news; at least they are not going to kill him," said Ms. Richey, who shared the news with Richey's mother, Eileen Richey of Edinburgh, in a tearful phone conversation Tuesday afternoon.

Richey could not be reached for comment yesterday at the Mansfield Correctional Institute. But Ms. Richey said that during a phone conversation with him he told her, "This Highlander is coming home."

In its 2-1 decision, the U.S. 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Cincinnati ruled that prosecutors failed to prove that Richey should have been convicted and that his attorney during the trial, William Kluge of Lima, did not provide him with a competent defense.

Richey, who could have pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and been freed by now, has steadfastly maintained he did not set the fire.

As a result of the decision, the state has 90 days to either retry him or set him free. Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro could ask the entire U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals to review Tuesday's decision, which could freeze the 90-day deadline. Any decision by the entire appeals court could end up at the U.S. Supreme Court.

"I'd love for them to turn around and retry Kenny; Kenny would, too," said his brother, Steve Richey, of Kalida, Ohio, also in Putnam County. "I believe, and everyone believes, they don't have a leg to stand on."

Not everyone was pleased with Tuesday's ruling.

"I'm a little disappointed in hearing that decision, not only from [a point of] law enforcement but the community as a whole," Putnam County Sheriff James R. Beutler said. "We thought justice was served. Everything was affirmed all the way up to this point. But, then again, in law enforcement we are used to that. We have to abide by their decision."

In Columbus Grove yesterday, the Richey case was discussed in gathering places like Miller's Lunch and the West End Tavern. Not everyone was as interested in the case as Sheriff Beutler.

"Nobody really cares. They weren't really local people, No. 1," said a bartender at the West End, who declined to give his name.

Sheriff Beutler, as a member of the Columbus Grove Volunteer Fire Department, found Cynthia Collins' body in an apartment complex in the early morning hours of June 30, 1986.

"We found her on the bedroom floor. That usually has a traumatic effect [on you]," he said.

Richey lived at the complex with his American-born father, Jim Richey. Richey had spent the first 18 years of his life in his mother's native Scotland and left for Ohio after his parents divorced in 1982.

Richey, a spirited young man who liked to drink and had a quick temper, had been in and out of trouble and struggled keeping a job.

Prosecutors said that Richey set the fire to kill his girlfriend, who was with another man in the apartment below where Cynthia Collins lived with her mother, Hope Collins. Witnesses testified that a drunken Richey had threatened to set the apartment on fire during a party at the complex that night.

At least one witness later recanted her testimony and other inconsistencies and questionable findings raised doubt about the state's case. In a 1998 series on the case, The Blade raised additional questions about the conviction.

Richey benefited from a group of ardent supporters and experts who spoke out on his behalf.

Richey's brother, Tom, serving a 65-year-term in a Washington state prison for the 1986 fatal shooting of an appliance store owner, began a media campaign from prison on his brother's behalf. In 1993, Ken Parsigian and Paul Nemser of Goodwin, Procter & Hoard, a Boston law firm, who had argued successfully against a Florida death-penalty case in the late 1980s and were looking for another challenge, decided to take on the Richey case.

Then, in 1995, Ms. Richey - then Karen Torley, an unemployed single mother with four children - read about the case in a Scottish newspaper.

Concerning her initial involvement, Ms. Richey said: "I only wanted to be a pen pal."

Ms. Richey's campaign resulted in Pope John Paul II making an appeal on Richey's behalf, the European Parliament approving a resolution urging that Richey's life be spared, and Richey receiving regular visits from British government officials after Ms. Richey led a successful effort in 2003 for Richey to gain his British citizenship.

"My God, what a woman! She's one of the most fantastic people I have met," said Kenny's father, Jim Richey, who now lives in Camano Island, Wash. "I guess the Guardian Angel sent the right person at the right time."

Despite Tuesday's news, the Richeys remain cautious about what the future might bring. They remember the 1992 Ohio Supreme Court ruling which, in a 4-3 decision, upheld Richey's conviction. They also recall the opinion of U.S. District Judge Patricia Gaughan, who in a 2001 ruling declined to call for a new trial for Richey.

Steve Richey, who talked with Kenny on Tuesday afternoon, said, "Kenny's happy, but he remains skeptical."

Karen Richey was more confident.

"I know they can appeal and they probably will appeal, but as far as I understand, all it will do is delay the inevitable," she said.

Richey, who suffers from diabetes, sleep apnea, and dental problems, has said he will return to Scotland should he be freed.

His father, who was diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer four months ago, said he believes his son is a changed man.

"I think with what he has inside of him, he'll make it," he said.

"I've got to hand it to him. He could have gone the easy route, said he had done it, and been out. But he stuck to his guns and he won. For a man who would rather suffer death than say he did something he didn't do is incredible."

By last night, Ms. Richey was exhausted, but she did not think she could sleep. She was turning the events of the past two days over and over in her mind.

"I feel it validates the whole fight. We weren't just saying he was innocent because he said he was. We had the facts. Finally, someone looked at them.

Contact George Tanber at:

gtanber@theblade.com

or 734-241-3610.



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