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Betonsports chief David Carruthers changes guilty plea in the US 30/09/2009
Andrew Clark
The British online gambling executive David Carruthers, who has spent three years under house arrest in Missouri, has withdrawn his "guilty" plea just days before he was due to be sentenced by a US court on racketeering charges for breaching America's sweeping restrictions on internet gaming.

Carruthers was chief executive of the betting firm Betonsports until he was arrested in 2006 while changing planes at Dallas airport en route from Britain to the company's operational base in Costa Rica. In a case that drew international attention and accusations of judicial over-reach, the Scottish businessman was accused of breaking US law for presiding over a company that accepted unlawful sports bets on the internet from Americans.

Since the summer of 2006, Carruthers has been largely confined to a hotel in St Louis, Missouri, under electronic surveillance as he awaits trial. In April, he agreed to plead guilty under a deal with prosecutors in return for a recommended penalty of 33 months' imprisonment.

But in the final days before a formal hearing set for Friday at which a judge was due to sentence him, this plea deal has abruptly broken down. In a terse legal filing, the court noted late yesterday that "the motion to set aside defendant David Carruthers's guilty plea is granted". A "change of plea" hearing has been set for 14 October.

The reason for Carruthers's apparent change of heart is unclear. Neither Carruthers nor his lawyer, Scott Rosenblum, responded to requests for comment. A spokeswoman for the US attorney's office in St Louis said prosecutors would not discuss the case. Several other Betonsports executives are still pleading guilty, including the company's founder, Gary Kaplan.

The development will come as a surprise to Carruthers's supporters who had hoped that he would be allowed to return home on Friday. His lawyers were expected to argue that the 52-year-old businessman has effectively served his agreed sentence of 33 months through his hotel confinement on $1m bail since August 2006.

Carruthers has become something of a rallying point for opponents of America's prohibition of online gambling. The Democratic congressman Barney Frank has described the British citizen's airport arrest as "one of the most Stalinist things I've ever seen my government do".

America's prohibition of betting on the web has fallen foul of the World Trade Organisation, which ruled two years ago that the law breaches international agreements on fair trade.