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Execution put off over lethal injection

Times Staff Writer

Just hours before a man convicted of murder was to be executed Thursday, Alabama’s Republican governor granted a 45-day stay of execution so the state could change its lethal-injection protocol.

Gov. Bob Riley’s decision came only two days after the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a challenge to the constitutionality of Kentucky’s lethal-injection procedures.

Also Thursday, the Supreme Court halted the execution of convicted murderer Carlton Turner Jr. less than two hours before his execution warrant was to expire, the Associated Press reported. Turner’s lawyers had filed appeals to tie his case to the court’s review of lethal-injection procedures.

Several states, including California, have had de facto moratoriums on executions because of legal challenges to lethal injection. The Kentucky case is scheduled to be heard by the high court in January, and lawyers for a death row inmate in Missouri also have asked the court to hear their challenge to Missouri’s procedure.

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There have been 13 executions in Alabama since Riley became governor in 2003. He emphasized in a formal statement Wednesday that he was postponing Thomas D. Arthur’s execution “only because the state is changing its lethal-injection protocol, and this will allow sufficient time for the Department of Corrections to make that change.” Arthur was convicted in the 1982 murder of Troy Wicker.

In April, a federal appeals court upheld a lower-court decision rejecting Aaron Lee Jones’ challenge to Alabama’s procedure, saying he had failed to file his claim in a timely fashion. Jones was executed May 3.

Nonetheless, a spokesman for the Alabama governor said Riley had made his decision to revamp his state’s procedures after a ruling by a federal judge that Tennessee’s lethal-injection protocol violated the Constitution’s 8th Amendment, which bars cruel and unusual punishment.

Lethal injection is the primary method of execution for 37 of the 38 states that have capital punishment laws. All 37 use a three-drug cocktail of sodium Pentothal, a fast-acting barbiturate that is supposed to anesthetize the inmate; pancuronium bromide, which paralyzes the inmate; and potassium chloride, which causes cardiac arrest.

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“Although lethal injection is the most prevalent form of execution, it is not sacrosanct,” U.S. District Judge Aleta Arthur Trauger in Nashville wrote last week, citing rulings from other states, including one by a federal judge in San Jose who found California’s administration of its law in violation of the 8th Amendment.

Jeff Emerson, Riley’s spokesman, said in an interview Thursday that Alabama’s lethal-injection protocol was “very similar” to Tennessee’s and that Riley had decided it needed to be altered.

“He has not decided how to change it,” Emerson said, but “it is likely to include additional safeguards to make sure the inmate is unconscious before the lethal drugs are administered.”

Riley’s formal statement Wednesday said there was “overwhelming evidence” that Arthur is guilty of murder, but on Thursday, Peter Neufeld, co-director of the Innocence Project in New York, once again called on Riley to permit DNA testing.

“Our concern is that biological evidence may exist that could be subjected to DNA testing and prove whether or not” Arthur is guilty, Neufeld said. “The victim’s wife in this case was convicted of murdering her husband and then changed her story; DNA testing could show that she changed her story only to get out of prison sooner, and that in fact someone other than Thomas Arthur committed this crime,” Neufeld added.

Emerson, Riley’s spokesman, countered that “there is no credible evidence that anyone other than Arthur committed this murder,” and that DNA testing would serve no useful purpose.

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henry.weinstein@latimes.com

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