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State Rejects Briton's Death Row Clemency

March 12, 2002|HENRY WEINSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Rebuffing pleas from British officials, a Georgia pardon board denied clemency Monday to a British citizen who has been on death row in Georgia for 16 years.

The five-member Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles acted after hearing pleas on behalf of Tracy L. Housel, sentenced to death for murdering Jeanne Drew at a truck stop northeast of Atlanta. Vera Baird, a member of Parliament, and Sister Helen Prejean, author of the book "Dead Man Walking," appeared before the board, as did a New Orleans attorney who, like Housel, holds dual citizenship in the U.S. and the United Kingdom.

Baird read a letter from British Prime Minister Tony Blair, which said the pending execution, scheduled for tonight, had caused "pain and anguish" in Britain, which restricted use of the death penalty about 40 years ago and outlawed it in 1998. Blair urged that the sentence be reduced to life without possibility of parole rather than death by lethal injection.

The pardon board issued no statement explaining its decision. Spokeswoman Kathy Browning said the board never discloses the tally of its votes. "All of these cases are difficult," she said.

Since Georgia reinstated the death penalty in 1976, Browning said, the board has granted clemency seven times, while 28 people have been executed.

Housel's proponents cited three principal arguments on his behalf.

They said evidence discovered after his trial showed that Housel, now 43, suffered brain damage from head injuries in his youth and that he had a history of hypoglycemia, which made him psychotic at the time he strangled Drew shortly after meeting her in 1985.

In addition, Housel's original trial lawyer, Walter Britt, has stated that he provided an inadequate defense to Housel and said the case has "haunted me for years."

Moreover, Housel's attorneys said he was denied due process of law because prosecutors told the jury during the penalty phase of the trial that he had murdered another man in Texas and assaulted people in Iowa and New Jersey--even though he was never charged for those crimes.

A year ago, a federal appeals court in New Orleans declined to consider the merits of that argument. Last month, however, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights said it would be a violation of Housel's human rights to execute him since his jury had heard such questionable evidence.

On Monday, a Butts County, Ga., state court--the site of Georgia's death row--denied a motion by Housel's attorneys seeking to stay the execution because of the Inter-American court's action.

Housel's attorneys, Robert L. McGlasson and Mary Elizabeth Wells, said they were disappointed by the pardon board's decision, calling it a "slap in the face to [the U.S.'] closest friend"--Britain.

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