By John Seewer/The Associated Press
OTTAWA, Ohio — A Scotsman who spent two decades on Ohio’s death row returned on Wednesday in handcuffs to a courtroom where he was set free four years ago.
Life on the outside has been a struggle for Ken Richey, who has been in and out of trouble while dealing with a lifetime of bitterness over a conviction that was eventually overturned.
Richey, 47, pleaded not guilty Wednesday to charges that he left a threatening telephone message for a judge who prosecuted his original case. Authorities say he called the courthouse on New Year’s Eve from his new home in Tupelo, Miss., warning the judge that he was coming to get him.
He could face up to six years in prison if convicted of retaliation and violating a civil protection order, said Gary Lammers, Putnam County prosecutor.
Richey was on death row for 21 years after being convicted of setting a fire that killed a 2-year-old girl in 1986 at an apartment complex. Richey denied any involvement and his new defense team contended that investigators mishandled evidence used to convict him.
A federal court determined his lawyers mishandled the case and overturned his conviction. County prosecutors initially planned to retry him, but Richey was released four years ago under a deal that required him to plead no contest to attempted involuntary manslaughter in exchange for his freedom. He also was ordered to stay away from the northwest Ohio county and anyone involved in the case.
Upon his release, authorities said they fully expected Richey to be back in trouble.
He returned to Scotland in 2008 to see his mother and pledged to speak out against the death penalty.
But just over a year later, he was accused of breaking into an apartment in Scotland’s capital, Edinburgh, and beating a man with a metal pipe. Those charges were later dropped when a witness failed to back the victim’s story. Richey then returned to the United States and reunited with his former wife in Minnesota.
He was arrested there in 2010 and charged with assault after his 24-year-old son told police his father grew angry, smacked him with a baseball bat and threatened to kill him after the pair had been wrestling.
Prosecutors in Ohio said Wednesday that Richey is still wanted on a warrant out of Minnesota.
Those who know Richey say that his biggest hurdle has been trying to overcome the anger from spending so much time on death row and that he has struggled with depression, drinking and heart trouble.
“The main thing I told Kenny when he got released was, ‘Try not to let your bitterness control you. Don’t let it consume you,’” said Ken Parsigian, an attorney who got Richey’s death sentence overturned.
Parsigian, who no longer represents Richey, said he tried to help Richey get his life back together. But Richey didn’t have the skills to land a good job in a difficult economy, he said.
“What you’ve got is a guy who is sitting around,” Parsigian said. “It’s hard not to let bitterness consume you.”
Richey also had to adjust to a world he no longer recognized and the reality that no one was going to hand him anything, Parsigian said.
“Kenny was kind of set up to fail,” he said.
Richey didn’t speak during the brief hearing Wednesday. He wore a bright orange jail shirt and sat in a chair with his hands clasped in his lap.
His attorney decided not to request bond, so Richey will likely remain in jail until his trial, which was set for May 7.
Authorities said Richey directed a threat at Judge Randall Basinger, a former prosecutor in the county. Richey didn’t identify himself in the message, but investigators thought it was him because of the accent and were able to trace the call to him, Lammers said.
The prosecutor said the message included, “I’m in Ohio,” and “I’m coming to get you.”
Investigators don’t think Richey was in the state at the time, Lammers said.
Richey’s attempt to overturn his conviction and his eventual release generated limited interest in Ohio, but his name was a familiar one in Britain, where there is no death penalty. Before his release, he had drawn support from members of the British Parliament and Pope John Paul II.
Karen Torley, who lives in Edinburgh and led a campaign for Richey’s release, said this week that Richey clearly needs help. She also doubts he was serious if he made the threat.
“He was on death row for so long, that’s got to have damaged him,” she said. “You’ve got to understand where he’s coming from. He’s a very distressed person.”