Two international activists spoke Thursday, May 6 to educate Oberlin about the case of Kenny Richey, an Ohio death row inmate. Karen Torley, from Richey's native Scotland, leads the international campaign to free him along with Paddy Hill, who has dedicated his life to speaking for the release of innocent people from incarceration.
Hill and five others, called the Birmingham Six, were convicted of an Irish Republican Army (IRA) bombing and spent 17 years in British jails before being found innocent. Torley and Hill spoke at Oberlin and spent the remainder of the week speaking around the state.
"I think having Karen and Paddy come was one really big step in the Campaign's fight to end the death penalty in Ohio and spread the word that these injustices are going on and something needs to be done about it," said first-year Elizabeth Jones. She explained that cases where there is a strong question of innocence draw public attention to the problems with the death penalty, but that more publicity in Ohio is crucial. "Some people in Ohio are familiar with Kenny Richey's name because the Toledo Blade has written three articles about him, but most of the hype has been overseas," Jones said.
Torley first became involved in Richey's case three years ago, originally intending just to write to him after reading about another British man who was executed in the U.S. Scotland does not have the death penalty. As she learned more about Richey's case she came to be convinced of his innocence.
Richey was convicted of starting a fire in the apartment of his friend Hope Collins. The fire killed Collins' two year old daughter who was left alone. There is no physical evidence linking Richey to the crime he was accused of, and he was supposed to have climbed onto a shed carrying two cans of flammable liquids while he had a broken wrist and was drunk. The fire was deemed an accident until Collins, about to be charged with child endangerment, mentioned that she had asked Richey to baby-sit. The carpet in Collins' apartment was thrown in the dump, then left at a police gas station before being tested for traces of gasoline.
Richey was sentenced to death because the judge thought he disconnected the smoke detector in Collins' apartment. Torley said that the judge decided this on his own, and neither the prosecution nor any witnesses accused Richey of disconnecting the smoke detector. Torley pointed out that Richey was actually charged with the attempted murder of his ex-girlfriend and another person in a different apartment, and not for the murder of the child.
Torley has made several trips to the U.S. and described her experience visiting Richey at Death Row in Mansfield, OH. Although she had a permit to visit on specified dates, she was denied her last day of visiting. Recently, an appeal was denied by the same judge who originally sentenced Richey. Partly because of international letters of support, Richey has an upcoming Motion of Discovery hearing, which is rarely granted.
Hill wants to see Richey proven innocent in a court of law, to "see how rotten and corrupt the state really is." He also pointed out that practically every household in America is connected to someone in prison. Hill said that people need help and education, not punishment, and emphasized the role of student activists.
Hill grew up in Belfast, Ireland and moved to England when he was 15. In 1974, the IRA conducted a bombing campaign in Birmingham, where he lived, and 21 people were killed when a bomb exploded in a bar. Hill and five other Irishmen were detained and beat up, then told to sign a confession. When Hill refused, the beating continued. He quotes a policeman telling him, "We know you didn't do the bombings-we don't give a fuck who did the bombings. We need a confession and convictions." At one point, they told him to sign a statement or be shot, and at night the policemen were given orders to keep them from sleeping. The British Parliament debated bringing back the death penalty for them.
"I'm doing this because I know what it's like to sit in a prison cell for something that you don't know anything about," Hill said. He has helped with the exoneration and release of 40 innocent people from British jails. Discussing the death penalty in the U.S., Hill said, "If we can get the innocent ones out, we can turn around and say to the authorities, look what you could have done."
Copyright © 1999, The Oberlin Review.
Volume 127, Number 24, May 14, 1999
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