updated 11/28/2005 11:12:33 AM ET 2005-11-28T16:12:33

The Supreme Court on Monday threw out a decision that erased the conviction and death sentence of a U.S.-British citizen in a fatal fire.

Justices directed an appeals court to reconsider whether Kenneth Richey was wrongly convicted of the blaze in Ohio that killed a toddler nearly 20 years ago.

The case has received international attention.

The high court, in a six-page ruling, said the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals wrongly ruled in Richey's favor.

The lower court had found that Richey received incompetent legal help and that there was no proof he intended to kill the girl.

Prosecutors contend that Richey set the blaze to get even with his former girlfriend, who lived in the same apartment and had a new boyfriend sleeping over.

The fire on June 30, 1986, killed 2-year-old Cynthia Collins.

A divided panel of the 6th Circuit described sloppy police work and raised questions about whether the fire was even arson.

Richey was outside the apartment in the northwest Ohio town of Columbus Grove and risked his life to save the 2-year-old, whose nickname was Scootie, the court said.

A documentary had raised inconsistencies in the case, prompting a campaign for Richey's release.

Pope's involvement
Pope John Paul II wrote a letter backing his cause, and 150 members of the British Parliament signed a motion backing Richey's claim of innocence after Prime Minister Tony Blair pledged to look into the case.

Ohio's Supreme Court lawyer, Douglas Cole, told justices the case was about "federal courts' authority under (the law) to undo state criminal convictions."

He said the case was important because courts deal with tens of thousands of appeals every year.

Richey's lawyer, Kenneth Parsigian, said that investigators first said that the fire was caused by a faulty fan, and allowed the apartment manager to gut the building, with carpet and other potential evidence being hauled to the county landfill.

The appeals court had found that Richey's lawyers at trial hired an unqualified forensic expert to investigate the fire and did not adequately challenge the state's handling of the investigation.

Richey grew up in Scotland and became a British citizen while in prison. He had moved to Ohio in the early 1980s to live with his American-born father. Richey held dual U.S. and British citizenship.

The case is Bradshaw v. Richey, 05-101.

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