San Quentin: like Alcatraz and Riker's Island, the name manages to evoke images of awe and respect - no mean feat for a maximum-security prison. Maybe because of the Who's Who of criminals who have resided there, or because its name conjures up memories of country singer Johnny Cash's famous concert within its walls, San Quentin most definitely belongs to America's correctional services Hall of Fame. But earlier this month, the prison, on the bay a few kilometres north of San Francisco, California, held few folkloric charms for one of its inmates. It was about 7.30 on a Monday evening, and Jaturun Siripongs, the jail's only Thai prisoner, had just been brought a specially prepared meal of fruit, bitter watermelon soup, and a Pepsi. The soup was not up to much, he complained, with perhaps good reason - the meal was due to be his last. The 43-year-old had travelled a long journey on his path towards being a condemned man. A troubled child and former petty thief who became a Buddhist monk in his native Thailand, Siripongs has spent most of his 17 years in the United States in prison, awaiting execution for a double murder in which he never denied being involved. As the clock ticked towards the one-minute-past-midnight deadline, security was tighter than usual in San Quentin. Because of the tensions evoked by executions, the prisoners were confined to their cells, roads into the complex were blocked, guards stood outside the walls in riot gear, and about 200 of the usual anti-capital punishment suspects were holding a vigil by the gates. Because she was barred by regulations from being with her client, Siripongs' lawyer, Linda Schilling, was holed up in a trailer in the yard, sipping bad coffee and working the phones. Even though she worked for a big Los Angeles law firm, this was far from the glitz and glamour of LA Law. She had been working for free on the Siripongs case for about a decade, through a dispiriting legal maze of appeals - a process which had seemed to reach the end of a cul-de-sac three days earlier, when California governor Pete Wilson declined a final plea for clemency. Mr Wilson's decision was no surprise. A hardline pro-death penalty politician, he had denied every clemency appeal in his eight years in office. Even so, Ms Schilling had spotted a ray of hope. She had earlier been informed by the governor's office that he would consider only information relating to Siripongs' rehabilitation and behaviour in prison, not the facts of the case. In issuing his decision, however, he brought such facts into play, leading the lawyer to claim she has been misled, and to issue a last-minute appeal saying her client's civil rights had been denied. As she waited in that cold trailer, Ms Schilling got the call her Buddhist client had been praying for: a local district judge ruled in his favour, staying the execution. The drama did not end there, however. Mr Wilson called on an appeals panel to remove the stay, but just after 11pm, the appeal was denied. Even then, the light was still on in the execution room. It was not until just after midnight - by which point Siripongs was supposed to have been dead - that the Supreme Court in Washington refused to lift the stay of execution, allowing the condemned man to breathe again. Hollywood could barely have portrayed a more gripping death row drama; the phrase '11th hour' might as well have been coined to describe Siripongs' last-minute reprieve. Instead of a dead man walking, he is now assured of escaping the lethal injection table until at least early January, when a new state governor will have to take a second look at his clemency plea. But the Siripongs case is more than a mere Hollywood ending; it provides an extraordinary look inside America's capital punishment system - a tortuous system in which the scales of justice are rarely balanced and where politics and differences in regional culture conspire to cloud the picture even more. Siripongs was a recent immigrant to the US when he walked into a Thai food market in Orange County, California, in 1981 and walked out with two shop workers dead behind him - Packovan Wattanaporn, who was found strangled with a nylon cord, and a Vietnamese man, Nguyen Ouach, who was stabbed several times. Siripongs was arrested two days later when he tried to buy a television set with Wattanaporn's stolen credit card, and officers found his home stuffed with evidence, including the dead woman's jewellery. Given the gruesome murder scene and the mountains of proof, a jury had little trouble finding Siripongs guilty of first-degree murder in a 1983 trial. In his time on death row, the convicted man has continued to maintain he never carried out the actual killings, and was in the shop with an accomplice. Police have never been able to test his claims because Siripongs refused to disclose his identity, claiming he feared for his family's safety. Siripongs had been on death row for four years when Ms Schilling took over his case - a by-product of California's huge death row backlog. After the Supreme Court reinstituted capital punishment as constitutionally sound in 1976, California and most other states began to allow the death penalty in the worst homicide cases. But because of the labyrinthine appeals process, there was such a long queue of death row inmates needing representation in the mid-1980s that big law firms such as Ms Schilling's were asked to take on clients, pro bono. It has taken 15 years from initial conviction to this month's near-death experience, during which Siripongs has been through 10 different court rulings. The average wait, according to the Death Penalty Information Centre (DPIC) in Washington, is 8.5 years, although it varies wildly from state to state. Had Siripongs been convicted in Virginia or Texas, he almost certainly would have been executed long ago. But in California, death row is like purgatory. More than 500 prisoners are awaiting execution there, but only five have been put to death since the 1976 ruling - and the first execution did not come until 1992. 'What is different about this case is that it's in California,' said the DPIC's Richard Dieter. 'It is all about the ambivalence towards the death penalty in California.' What is also unusual about the case is the unprecedented boost Siripongs received for his clemency plea - from the most unexpected of quarters. Families of the victims chimed in on his behalf, leaning in no small part on Buddhist beliefs that personal karma and forgiveness are more important than a death sentence imposed by human beings. 'If the power was in my hands, I would give him life in prison,' said Surachai Wattanaporn, the husband of the murdered woman. 'As time goes by, you have to overcome the difficult times, get over those feelings.' Ms Schilling said such words were powerful fodder for clemency. 'It's extremely unusual,' she said this week. 'This just doesn't happen in the US. Usually the victims' families want a front-row seat to watch the execution.' Siripongs also received an amazing testimonial from the former warden at San Quentin, Daniel Vasquez, who wrote to Mr Wilson urging clemency - the first time he had ever done so for one of his prisoners. 'Mr Siripongs has proved himself to be a model prisoner,' he wrote. 'He has remained disciplinary-free, consistently followed the prison rules, posed no danger to the institutional staff or inmates and has been respectful and helpful to correctional officers.' The model prisoner image remains Siripongs' best hope of survival - and is being widely advertised by Ms Schilling. She says his lapse into crime was caused by a troubled upbringing in a brothel in Thailand, and that he retains the Buddhist faith he learned when he trained as a monk in a Bangkok temple. He prays every morning, has taken college courses from his cells, works hard every day on his cleaning detail, and is an accomplished water-colourist. A small, calm man, he is respected by both the guards and the hard-core criminals he lives amongst, and often acts as a diplomat between them. Citing past instances of prisoners' media comments being used against them in death row appeals, Ms Schilling has advised her client to decline all media interviews. The Thai Government has also interceded on his behalf, filing its own plea last month asking Mr Wilson to commute his sentence. Bangkok has said it is willing to take Siripongs back to Thailand and incarcerate him for life there. Mr Wilson, however, remained unconvinced. 'Mr Siripongs' remorse is infrequent, his callous crimes unmitigated, his justifications non-existent,' he wrote in his clemency denial. Whatever the facts of the case, Mr Wilson was doing what virtually every other public official has to do - pay lip service to the fact that most Americans support capital punishment. Even in the laid-back Golden State, a recent survey showed 73 per cent are in favour of the death penalty, and toying with clemency can be its own death sentence to a political career. 'Clemency is not a judicial process,' said Mr Dieter. 'Very often, the reasons can be very much political.' For this reason, an average of only one clemency plea is successful annually in the entire US. Politics also gives rise to some blatant dissimulation by politicians; in New Mexico, for example, former governor Tony Anaya spoke in favour of the death penalty, but on the day he left office commuted the death sentence of every state prisoner on death row. There are still legal question marks hanging over Siripongs' imminent fate, but it is looking increasingly likely that because of Mr Wilson's technical errors, the clemency plea will have to be heard again in January. By that time, however, the governor-elect, Democrat Gray Davis, will have taken over. A moderate politically, Mr Davis has nevertheless spoken in favour of the death penalty, and his ruling in the Siripongs case will be seen as a litmus test of his future policy in this controversial area. Whatever Mr Davis' personal beliefs, it cannot help Siripongs that the new governor will feel intense political pressure to show he is as tough as his Republican predecessor; nor does it augur well that clemency is only usually granted because of doubts about the original conviction, and not because of the defendant's subsequent moral rebirth. One does not have to be a Buddhist to oppose the death penalty, but Siripongs will need all his faith to face whatever fate the authorities finally choose. As Jongkham Sriyothin, an official with the Young Buddhist Association of Thailand, explained in court documents filed on behalf of the former monk: 'For Jaturun, the severest punishment is not death, but a life lived entirely in prison, forever contemplating the shame and pain he has brought to others.'