British grandmother waits on death row

Any day without warning, Linda Carty could get news that a judge in Houston has signed a piece of paper naming the date on which she is be executed by lethal injection.

For eight years, the British grandmother has been living on death row after being controversially found guilty of kidnapping and then killing a young mother in order to steal her newborn baby.

Today, her plight returns to the spotlight as a Texas court considers a legal motion by an accused murderer named John Edward Green.

Green claims that the enthusiastic use of the death penalty in Texas, where roughly half of all US executions happen, has become so arbitrary and riddled with errors and miscarriages of justice that it is no longer constitutional.

In her first major interview since the aftermath of a decision by the US Supreme Court, the highest legal forum in America, to refuse to hear her case, Carty, 51, spoke of the pressures of life under the shadow of execution.

“I think about it all the time,” she said. “You have to. I’m on death row, and it’s my reality. I get scared, sometimes, so scared I find it hard to speak. It’s like a huge weight, hanging over me.”

Offender Carty, otherwise known as prisoner No 999406, is being held behind the razor wire of Mountain View prison in the rural town of Gatesville. During the hour she spoke with The Independent in the facility’s visitors unit, her mood seemed to oscillate between sunny optimism, steely anger and occasional despair.

“I look at where I am now, and tell myself that it’s an injustice to me ever being born,” she said, in one of the darker moments. “I ask: did my mother give birth to me so that somebody would lock me away, turn me into a number, and decide that I will be killed by the State of Texas? It’s so wrong. It makes you question everything.”

In 2002, Carty was convicted of masterminding the fatal kidnapping of Joana Rodriguez, a neighbour who was seized alongside her four-day-old son by three men on 16 May 2001 and later found dead from suffocation, with duct tape over her mouth and a plastic bag around her head.

Prosecutors convinced a jury that Carty had paid the three men to carry out the attack as part of a bizarre plot to claim Ms Rodriguez’s child as her own. There was no forensic evidence linking her to the abduction, but the attackers testified that she masterminded it.

Yet as dust settled on her guilty verdict, serious questions arose. Even rudimentary evidence had been overlooked during the trial. Key witnesses were not called. The jury, in a racially-charged case (the victim was Hispanic) consisted of 10 white people, one black and one Latino.

Amid growing scepticism, appeal lawyers began pushing for a re-trial. Their campaign has thrust Carty to the centre of America’s simmering debate over capital punishment and prompted scrutiny of the woefully inadequate legal counsel that she – like so many other death row inmates – was forced to rely on.

At the heart of Carty’s case for a fresh trial is the allegation that she did not receive a competent defence from her original lawyer, Jerry Guerinot, a court-appointed attorney who has seen no less than 20 of his clients sentenced to death.

Mr Guerinot met with Carty only once before the trial began, for just 15 minutes. He failed to call any witnesses and neglected to tell the jury that the three kidnappers who gave the crucial evidence against Carty did so as part of a plea bargain that would see them spared the death penalty.

“Jerry Guerinot was the biggest windbag I have ever met,” Carty said. “He was incompetent. He did nothing for me. He never prepared. He met me for a quarter of an hour, two weeks prior to the trial. That was the only time I met him in the nine and a half months I was sitting waiting for the case to start.”

Mr Guerinot, who has since retired from capital cases, had little grasp of his brief, she alleged. Carty said: “He was not familiar with the murder site. He had no contact with my family. He even kept calling me different names in court. Belinda. Melinda. He one time asked if my surname was McCarthy.”

Since the guilty verdict was handed down, Carty has had plenty of time to reflect. Each day starts at 3am at Mountain View, when all 10 of the female death-row inmates in Texas are told to rise and put on their all-white prison uniform (if it is cold, they are allowed to add a green anorak).

She is allowed out of her cell for just four hours in each 24: a two-hour period, from 6.30am, when she practices cross-stitching, and another two-hour period, from 2.30pm, when she walks around a caged yard with her fellow inmates. They are a diverse group who, like most of the people America’s courts put to death, hail disproportionately from ethnic minorities: four are black, four Hispanic and two white.

Carty says she spends most of the time she is locked away in a cell “sulking, throwing a tantrum, or sitting to reflect”.

She also catches up on correspondence. Once each week, for two hours, family members are allowed to visit although her daughter, Jovelle, has lately been prevented by prison authorities from bringing Carty’s grandsons with her.

Over the years, Carty has watched her case drift in and out of the public eye. In 2009, a statue of her was placed on the vacant plinth at Trafalgar Square. Her many voluble supporters include Bianca Jagger, who has described her plight as a “most egregious miscarriage of justice”.

The irony, however, is that her circumstances are now unlikely to change until a death warrant is actually signed. At that point, the British Government will heavily lobby on her behalf, while appeal lawyers once more call for a retrial.

If the worst comes to the worst, her last hope will be a pardon from Texas Governor Rick Perry. The chances of success on that front are, statistically speaking, slim: Mr Perry has granted clemency to just one death-row inmate in his nine years in office, while allowing 225 to be killed.

With this in mind, Carty has already written her will, and given her mother instructions for her funeral. She is currently considering what to select for her last meal. “I did not do this crime and the real murderer who committed this crime is out there,” she says, as guards announce that our time is up. “I just tell myself that God has a better plan.”

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