Doubts in murder conviction case against Kevin Keith fuels demands for reconsideration of death penalty in Ohio

An unlikely coalition of death penalty supporters and opponents, including leading conservative politicians, former prosecutors and judges, is attempting to prevent the execution next month of an Ohio man they say was wrongly convicted of murdering a young child and two women.

The group is urging Ohio's governor, Ted Strickland, to spare the life of Kevin Keith, 46, who is scheduled to appear before a parole board hearing today to plead for a pardon or a new trial. If the board rejects the appeal, Strickland will have to decide whether Keith will be executed by lethal injection in September after 16 years on death row.

The case is fuelling demands for a comprehensive reconsideration of the death penalty in Ohio, which carries out the second highest number of executions in the US, after Texas.

More than 30 former prosecutors and judges are pressing Strickland to free Keith or give him a new trial. Among them is Jim Petro, a former Ohio attorney general and Republican who supports the death penalty.

"I am gravely concerned that the State of Ohio may be on the verge of executing an innocent person," he said in a letter to the governor.

Herbert Brown, a former justice on Ohio's supreme court, also wrote to the governor.

"There is a mass of exculpatory evidence, suppressed evidence, faulty eyewitness identification and forensic reports that support legitimate claims of innocence," he said.

Keith was convicted of breaking in to a flat and showering the residents with bullets. When the police arrived they found four year-old Machae Chatman dead alongside her mother, Marichell, and aunt, Linda. Two other children, aged four and seven survived, as did Richard Warren who provided the eyewitness testimony that sent Keith to death row.

At the trial, Keith was accused of murdering the Chatmans because one of their relatives was a police informant who identified him as a drug dealer.

Keith said he had a watertight alibi: four people vouched that he was at his aunt's house 12 miles from the scene of the crime. But the jury convicted him.

Critics have latched on to the likelihood that the police fabricated a crucial piece of evidence that led to his conviction. His trial was told that a nurse who treated Warren, the man who survived the shooting, said the injured man had identified his attacker as someone called Kevin. After the trial, however, no nurse could be found with the name given by the police officer who made the claim, and the nurse who did treat Warren said she never had any such conversation.

There have also been questions about the conduct of the identity parade at which Keith was picked out. The method used has since been outlawed in Ohio.

A number of politicians have also thrown their weight behind the appeal including Republican members of the state legislature who have otherwise strongly supported the death penalty.

A sitting Ohio supreme court justice, Paul Pfeifer, has also thrown his support behind commuting Keith's execution.

Nearly 30 years ago, Pfeifer was one of three state senators who reinstated Ohio's death penalty after it had been declared unconstitutional. Now he is openly questioning whether any of the 160 men and women awaiting execution in the state should be put to death.

Strickland has said that he finds the conviction "troubling" and that he is "looking at that case very seriously".

Keith is optimistic that the level of support will save him from the execution chamber.

"I don't want to die, but I don't want life without parole either," he told the Columbus Dispatch in Ohio. "I want out. I'm innocent. I want a life, but I'm afraid to let myself think about what that might be like because it will hurt that much more if it doesn't happen."

Ohio has commuted five death sentences in the past seven years because of doubts about convictions and three death row inmates have been exonerated through DNA tests.

Death penalty supporters join call for Ohio man to be spared | World news | The Guardian