Killer Tom Richey tells how he won his fight against a 65-year sentence

I'VE been trying to escape from an American prison for 24 years. I made my first attempt in 1988, two years after I turned myself in for shooting two people, killing one, during a bad LSD bender, in Tacoma, Washington State. I had a grappling hook made at the prison metal shop and a rope fashioned from nylon belts stitched together.

I still remember the fear twisting in my gut as I and a young American grasped at the high wall through the fog that had rolled down from the surrounding mountains. I was 20 years old and believed I was capable of anything, but the wall looked so much higher up close.

Only moments later, the boots of a tower guard clomped along the wrought iron catwalk and his face appeared at the top of the wall. He had an assault rifle in his hands. He raised it to his shoulder, pointed it right at my chest.

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"Freeze, you two sons of b*****s or I'll blow your goddamn heads off!" he yelled.

I didn't freeze. I ran the way I'd come. Two high chain-link fences separated me from the general prison population. I didn't think he'd shoot, but he did. Twice. Once each time I climbed the fences. But they were either warning shots or his aim was off that night. I managed to blend back into population only to be taken to the hole an hour later; I was easily identifiable because of my thick Edinburgh accent. They sent me to the Washington State Penitentiary at Walla Walla.

Eight years later, I tried to escape from another prison after Washington officials rejected my application to transfer to a UK prison under the existing treaty. I tried to leave through the roof, but I didn't get far.

Maybe my escape attempts are indicative of a man who's unwilling to atone, to accept punishment for his actions, but that's just not true. I could have hopped on a plane and flown back to Edinburgh to flee the nightmare in which I played the role of a monster. I was tempted. Instead, I turned myself in to the police and confessed. It's a decision I've long regretted for I've learned that atonement doesn't come from the length of a prison sentence. It comes from within.

The Pierce County prosecutor pushed for the ultimate penalty. Death by hanging. It was election year and he didn't want to appear soft on crime. I realised then that America wasn't the morally fair and forgiving country that's portrayed in its films and TV shows. I experienced its true, darker side; a regime that rarely shows leniency. Their idea of leniency in my case was to dangle a sentence of 65 years before me like a noose, which I placed my head through.

Sixty-five years with no chance for parole. I saw it as a long, slow death sentence. My decision to escape was almost immediate. If I didn't, I knew I'd never see home again.

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Following my last failed attempt, prison officials returned me to the Walla Walla Penitentiary and I remained in close custody supervision for many years. But I didn't stop trying to get out. When I saw no realistic opportunity of escaping over the walls, I turned my focus inwards to the prison law library. Maybe I could use it to help me escape?

I had to believe in that possibility. One thing I'd learned about serving a life sentence in prison was you must have hope. Yet, although hope is as light as a feather, when you carry it long enough it begins to weigh you down. I've seen lifers give up. It's visibly noticeable. Light fades from their eyes and a part of them dies inside. They're never the same; they never recover. It scared me to become like them, to be digested by the ugly American beast that held me in its belly. I struggled through pessimism and despair. I struggled to keep hope alive in my heart.

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My education hadn't advanced much beyond an O-level in art from James Gillespie's High School, so it took me a while to comprehend all I read in Washington State's thousands of volumes of law books. It took a while longer for me to gain the confidence to file a petition to the appellate court that challenged the length of my sentence. My sentence was more than three times the norm for murder in Washington State, which is 20 years.

Although America's highest court ruled in 2004 that Washington's procedure for sentencing people to terms higher than its standard range was unlawful, the belated decision wasn't ruled retrospective and therefore could not apply to older cases such as mine. It didn't seem fair, but I couldn't complain. After all, I had taken a person's life – every year they could have had.

Every time I filed a petition that challenged my plea or sentence, the court dismissed it for one reason or another. After trial, a prisoner has no right to a lawyer in America, and I didn't have the thousands of dollars demanded by private lawyers. I was easy pickings for every legally-trained prosecutor. They were like the guard who stood on the wall with me in their gun-sights. But, in the back and forth battle of written arguments between me and the Pierce County prosecutor, I gained experience and a greater understanding of the law.

It was a struggle to keep hope alive. I turned in my bunk at night, longing for the chance to live normally again, to meet the expectations my parents had of me long ago. When I woke the next morning and faced an old lifer across the breakfast table, I saw my aging reflection in the vacancy of his eyes. In him, I saw my future if I gave up, and I was determined not to let the Americans break me.

In 2006, I saw things ignorance had previously blinded me to. I saw that Count II of my conviction, Attempted Felony Murder, did not exist as a crime under Washington law. It was such an egregious error, it appeared like a grappling hook in my hand and the wall no longer loomed so large.

I filed a petition, claiming I'd been convicted of a non-existent statute, and it took until January 2008 for the Washington State supreme court to agree with me. But just as I threw my grappling hook over the wall and began to ascend, the court shot me down by ruling I had also pleaded guilty to the alternative valid conviction at Count II.

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True, I had been charged with the alternative valid crime of Attempted Premeditated Murder at Count II, but I denied premeditation on the record and the original court did not find me guilty of this alternative crime. Surely a silent conviction could not stand? Yet, unfortunately, I could not appeal the decision of the state's highest court.

But the court had ruled that Attempted Felony Murder was an invalid crime, and this was the only crime on the record of judgement. I was at least entitled to have it stricken from the record. This would leave the record at Count II blank, relieving me of the conviction and requiring resentencing to a 20-year term on Count I. It was unlawful for the court to replace the invalid crime with one the original court hadn't adjudged me guilty of.

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For nearly two years, I fought against stonewalling tactics by the lower courts who tried to dismiss my case. Finally, the Supreme Court took notice and issued a preliminary ruling on 8 January, 2010, in which they agreed I was entitled to have the invalid conviction stricken from my record. I now anticipate being returned to the Pierce County court in the coming weeks to have my invalid crime stricken and for re-sentencing and release for time served.

I've been ascending the wall, pushed by 24 years of hope, and I'll soon be over. And I'll have escaped the right way, without worry of being shot from the wall, without worry of being hunted and extradited from Scotland.


He spent a year on Death Row before he accepted a plea bargain, and was sentenced to 65 years in prison.

Richey moved to America from Edinburgh when he was 17 to start a new life with his older brother Kenny and their American father after his parents' marriage broke up.

Shortly after Tom was imprisoned, Kenny was charged with arson-murder. He spent years on Death Row before his conviction was overturned in January 2008.

Their mother Eileen, of Dalry, has since spoken of her regret at giving her sons the money to move to the US.