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The pensioner who took on the US justice system and won ... and why she is far from finished

AN 80-YEAR-OLD widow who has fought for nearly 20 years to clear the name of a convicted killer on death row in America is stepping up her campaign after he was given a last-minute reprieve from lethal injection.

Wendy Alsford believes Tyler will eventually be freed but she might not live  to see itPhotograph: Curtiss Wilson
Wendy Alsford believes Tyler will eventually be freed but she might not live to see itPhotograph: Curtiss Wilson

Wendy Alsford, of Cairnryan, near Stranraer, returned from flying out to see Arthur Tyler in Ohio last week. He had been facing the death penalty until questions over his conviction led Ohio governor John Kasich to commute his sentence to one of life in prison without parole.

For Alsford and fellow campaigners in Tyler's home town of Cleveland, the reprieve - just weeks before his execution date - was a partial victory. But they believe he is in prison for a crime he did not commit and they will not rest until he is released.

"He's still got hope," said Alsford. "If he didn't have that, he'd be done for."

Tyler, 54, was jailed in March 1983 after he was convicted of shooting fruit-and-veg seller Sander Leach in Cleveland and sentenced to death.

His co-accused, Leroy Head, was spared the death penalty after striking a deal to testify against Tyler. He was freed in 2008 and has reportedly since admitted he fired the gun.

Retired nurse Alsford got involved after seeing a TV appeal for pen-pals for those on death row 17 years ago. She was put in touch with Tyler.

"Arthur seemed very, very genuine, there was something about him," she said. She became convinced of his innocence after reading his letters and hearing Head had admitted the murder.

"I knew absolutely nothing about the law," she said. "I just wanted to help him."

She first flew out to see Tyler, who has a son and daughter, 12 years ago, and found him to be "a very quiet, gentle man".

"He was lovely," she said. "He was so quiet and so sad. He spoke a lot about his family and what he was missing. I said to him: 'You are innocent.' He said: 'Yes, I am, but who will believe me now?'"

She started a campaign to raise awareness of his situation - www.justiceforarthur.webs.com - and has written "countless" letters to the Ohio governor. He has not replied.

She also raised the case with then-prime minister Tony Blair, she said, who advised her to write to the US embassy. It too did not reply.

Since then, she has continued to write letters and emails to Tyler and post updates online. She had not seen him again face to face until a fortnight ago, on July 19 and 20, when she spent a few hours with him in prison.

"I would be proud to call him my son. He's a lovely person, he's a real gentleman," she said. "He's relying on everyone, including myself, to do what they can to let people know about the injustice.

"While the governor of Ohio has revoked the execution order, he has ruled Arthur will never be eligible for parole. We now face a lengthy fight to challenge that and, given my age, I don't know if I will ever see him freed."

Tyler has admitted that on the day of the murder, he and Head went out with a gun intending to commit robbery. Head initially admitted pulling the trigger, Tyler's attorneys said, but changed his story and testified against Tyler in exchange for escaping the death penalty.

Alsford, who has written to Tyler every week, said he did not ask her to start the campaign but she felt compelled to help him.

She was supported in her campaign by one of her daughters, Amanda Jane Buswell, until she died four-and-a-half years ago.

Alsford flew out to see Tyler on July 18, two months after the reprieve was issued by the governor. He acted after the Ohio Parole Board recommended Tyler's sentence should be changed to time served.

The 11 members voted unanimously that he should be given clemency. Six members voted for him to have "immediate parole eligibility" and the other five said he should be eligible for it in two years. In their recommendation, they said "doubt exists as to whether Tyler is the principal offender".

THE the state governor accepted the ruling of clemency regarding the death penalty - but refused eligibility for parole.

Tyler was "relatively upbeat", when she saw him, Alsford said. "He was quite matter of fact about it. He kept saying: 'Don't let anyone think I'm not grateful to the governor. He's given me my life but he has taken it away again. I'm still under lock and key.'"

He sent a letter to Alsford to help with the campaign, which she shared with the Sunday Herald.

"I spent 31 years in prison for a crime I didn't do," he wrote.

"The guy who did it put it on me to save his own life. He confessed several times and was facing death row before he made a deal with the state to put his murder on me.

"He ended up with 20 years to life, I ended up with death. He is now free to walk the streets and I am being held hostage.

"I am stuck in a situation that should have been fixed long before now."

He said he believed the governor had not given him parole because of forthcoming elections.

Tyler, who had previous convictions for petty theft, has asked his lawyers to seek a new trial, which they hope will free him.

Kathy Sanford, his state public defender, said there had always been "grave doubts" about his involvement in the murder.

Meanwhile, back in Cairnryan, Alsford still emails the US every week. "I have always had a good feeling that things will go right for him but I didn't dream it would take this long," she said.

"I still have this good feeling and, nine hours out of 10, Arthur thinks he has got a chance to get out. We are all telling him that."

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