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Murderer known as ‘Houdini of death row’ executed in Alabama

Concerned citizens gather for a candlelight vigil for convicted murderer Tommy Arthur on the steps o
A candlelight vigil for convicted murderer Thomas Arthur on the steps of the Alabama Capitol in Montgomery in November.
(Mickey Welsh / Montgomery Advertiser)

After narrowly dodging execution seven times, an Alabama inmate dubbed the “Houdini of death row” was put to death Thursday.

Convicted murderer Thomas Arthur, 75, was strapped to a gurney at the Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Ala., and injected with a cocktail of lethal drugs about 11:45 p.m. local time. About half an hour later, he was pronounced dead.

With his final words, Arthur apologized to his children. “I’m sorry for failing you as a father,” he said. “I love you more than anything on Earth.”

Arthur had initially been scheduled to be executed at 6 p.m., but the U.S. Supreme Court issued a temporary stay, signed by Justice Clarence Thomas. The nation’s highest court then went on to lift the stay an hour and 15 minutes before Arthur’s death warrant expired at midnight.

In a dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor criticized the court’s decision, arguing that she continued to doubt that one of the state’s execution drugs, midazolam, was capable of rendering prisoners unable to feel the “excruciating pain” of lethal injection. Alabama officials, she argued, had only compounded the risks by denying Arthur’s attorneys access to a phone in the witness room to contact the courts if any aspect of the execution went wrong.

“When Thomas Arthur enters the execution chamber tonight, he will leave his constitutional rights at the door,” she wrote.

Arthur, who was first sentenced to death in 1983 when George Wallace was governor of Alabama, has spent more than 34 years on death row. In that time, 58 other Alabama inmates have been executed.

In a statement, Gov. Kay Ivey said the decision on whether to spare Arthur’s life was one of the most difficult she had ever made, and that she ultimately decided to allow the decision of the jury to stand.

“Mr. Arthur was rightfully convicted and sentenced, and tonight that sentence was rightfully and justly carried out,” she said.

Convicted in the 1982 murder of Troy Wicker, Arthur had long maintained his innocence. The state said that after embarking on an affair with the victim’s wife, Judy Wicker, he shot her husband in the right eye with a pistol.

After the crime, Wicker told police she was raped by a black man who knocked her unconscious and shot her husband. She later changed her story, testifying that she paid Arthur $10,000 to kill her husband and that he painted his face black and wore a wig when he committed the crime.

After expressing sympathy for Wicker's family, Sherrie Stone, 55, the eldest of Arthur’s four children, called for mandatory DNA testing of available evidence in all capital cases across the United States.

“I have never known for certain whether my father killed Troy Wicker,” she said in a statement after the execution. “At times I was convinced he was the killer, and at other times I believed he was innocent. Now I will never know the truth because the evidence that could prove if my father was innocent or guilty has not been tested for DNA using the latest technology."

Arthur’s execution came a week after Alabama’s Republican-dominated House of Representatives approved a bill that would shorten the appeals process for death row inmates.

Supporters argue that the bill would spare victims of crime the agony of legal appeals that drag on for decades. Opponents counter that it will increase the possibility that Alabama executes an innocent person.

On Thursday, just hours before Arthur’s scheduled execution, the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals and the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals denied requests from Arthur's defense attorneys to halt the execution.

Undated photo of death row inmate Thomas Arthur.
Undated photo of death row inmate Thomas Arthur. (Alabama Department of Corrections)

Arthur’s pro bono legal team had continued to insist its client had been denied access to crucial evidence, including a rape kit from Judy Wicker and a wig worn by Wicker’s killer that they claimed could prove Arthur's innocence.

“Neither a fingerprint nor a weapon, nor any other physical evidence, connects Thomas Arthur to the murder of Troy Wicker,” his lead attorney, Suhana Han, said in a statement. “If the state executes Mr. Arthur on May 25 as planned, he will die without ever having had a meaningful opportunity to prove his innocence — an outcome that is inexcusable in a civilized society.”

On Thursday, Ivey denied Arthur’s request for advanced DNA testing of hair samples that he argued could implicate another person in the crime, stating that the hair samples had been presented to three juries, “all of whom convicted Arthur of capital murder beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Janette Grantham, executive director of the Victims of Crime and Leniency, an Alabama victim rights organization, said Arthur and his attorneys had no new evidence and were just stalling.

“There is no reason why anyone should be on death row for 34 years,” Grantham said: “He's a Houdini. He has this bag of tricks and he knows how to manipulate the system. All the appeals are just a delay tactic. I've seen and heard it all and he is guilty.”

After going through three separate trials for Wicker’s murder, Arthur has pursued dozens of appeals in state and federal courts. Most recently, he has challenged the drug protocol to be used in his execution, claiming it threatens to violate his rights to be free from cruel and unusual punishment under the 8th and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

In November, the Supreme Court delayed his execution minutes before he was strapped to the gurney. The court went on to refuse to hear his request for a firing squad rather than lethal injection, letting stand the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision that Arthur had not satisfied the legal standards for challenging his method of execution, specifically the use of midazolam.

In an 18-page dissent, Sotomayor said Arthur should have been allowed to make his case.

“Like a hangman’s poorly tied noose or a malfunctioning electric chair, midazolam might render our latest method of execution too much for our conscience — and the Constitution — to bear,” Sotomayor wrote. “Condemned prisoners, like Arthur, might find more dignity in an instantaneous death rather than prolonged torture on a medical gurney.”

In the run-up to his scheduled execution, Arthur’s legal team submitted a flurry of petitions before the Supreme Court, saying there have been recent problems with executions in Alabama and across the nation since the court rejected Arthur's previous challenges.

Arthur’s lawyers cited Alabama’s December execution of another inmate, Ronald Smith, arguing that, in that case, the state’s Department of Corrections went ahead with the execution even when midazolam did not appear to properly anesthetize him before administering drugs that stopped his heart and lungs.

Arthur’s defense team had also asked the Supreme Court to order that his attorney, one of his designated execution witnesses, have access to a telephone during the execution to contact the courts or co-counsel if the midazolam did not render Arthur unconscious.

At the time of Wicker’s killing, Arthur was on work release from a life sentence for the second-degree murder of his sister-in-law. He admitted to that crime, saying he only meant to scare her when he shot her in the right eye with a pistol.

In the early 1990s, near the end of his final trial in Wicker’s death, Arthur requested the death penalty, insisting he was innocent of the crime but had not yet been able to prove it because of “inadequate preparation.” A death sentence, he said, would allow him more time and resources to devote to his appeal.

“I am asking you, with as much emphasis as I can, to please give me the death penalty,” he told the court, according to a transcript. “I don’t want to die. Hell, I’m not crazy. I’m not nuts. But giving me life and no parole will destroy my access to getting this thing back to court.”

He did not expect to be put to death, he said back then, noting he expected higher courts to eventually reverse his conviction and death sentence.

“I will not be executed,” Arthur said. “I’m totally positive of that. I wouldn’t dare ask you for it if I thought for a minute that I would be executed.”

Jarvie is a special correspondent.

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UPDATES:

11:50 p.m.: This article was updated with a statement from Arthur’s daughter, Sherrie Stone.

11:25 p.m.: This article was updated with Arthur’s last words and more details about the execution.

10:35 p.m.: This article was updated with the execution.

9:45 p.m.: This article was updated with the Supreme Court lifting a temporary stay of execution.

6:15 p.m.: This article was updated with the Supreme Court issuing a temporary stay of execution.

This article was originally published at 3:45 p.m.


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