Vigil begins for Briton awaiting execution

 A prayer vigil is gathering outside the Georgia prison where Briton Tracey Housel is due to be executed at midnight British time (7pm local time). Housel, 43, who was convicted of raping and murdering a woman in Atlanta 17 years ago, has spent 16 years on death row. An 11th-hour appeal was made by Prime Minister Tony Blair today. Earlier, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw made a personal appeal to the governor of Georgia which was rejected.The UK consul-general Michael Bates and four EU counterparts also delivered an official protest signed by the 15 member states of the European Union. Vera Baird, Labour MP for Redcar, and Sr Helen Prejean, whose life story was told in the film Dead Man Walking, are among those calling for him to be spared. Sr Helen said his approaching execution was taking its toll. She said: "His eyes are haggard and he has not slept for several days. But I believe he has found a deep inner strength during his time in death row." Housel was born in the British territory of Bermuda. A premature baby he weighed only 3.5 lbs. His childhood was very harsh. Both parents were alcoholics and he grew up witnessing many violent fights. The family moved to the States when he was one. In the early 80s Housel moved to Iowa and began a relationship with a widow, trying to act as father to her children. But he suffered from violent mood swings, took drugs and drank heavily. In 1985, during a binge, he met a 46 year old woman at a roadhouse in Georgia, raped and murdered her. Six weeks later he was arrested and admitted the crime. He was sentenced to death in 1986. Lawyers argue his initial trial was unfair because the jury heard evidence of other murders allegedly linked to him - even though Housel was not convicted of these. They say his young and inexperienced lawyer wrongly advised him to plead guilty, depriving him of the defence of insanity - although he had a history of mental instability. Without a reprieve Housel will become the first Briton executed in the US since Nick Ingram was put to death in 1995, also in Georgia. The death penalty in America has claimed more than 760 lives since it was reinstated in 1976. Last year the total was 66. Already this year, it stands at 12.

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