MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) – Convicted murderer Tommy Arthur – called the “Houdini” of death row by some after having seven prior execution dates postponed – was scheduled to be put to death Thursday evening in Alabama, as his attorneys filed a flurry of last minute appeals.
Arthur, 75, was convicted in the 1982 murder-for-hire slaying of Troy Wicker. The twisting legal saga over the years has involved three trials, a jail escape and a lengthy court battle by Arthur’s pro bono legal team challenging the humaneness of lethal injection.
Arthur’s lawyers have made multiple last-ditch appeals, both in and out of court, seeking to halt the execution. Late Thursday afternoon, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a temporary stay “pending further order” from the justices.
Arthur’s lawyers argued that they should have access to a telephone to access the courts if the execution goes awry. They also said in a separate filing that a sedative used by the state is ineffective and will not render Arthur unconscious. They also asked Alabama’s governor to halt the execution so DNA testing could be done evidence collected at the crime scene, a request that was denied.
Speaking by telephone Monday from a south Alabama prison, Arthur acknowledged his hopes of gaining an eighth reprieve are diminishing. “I’m terrified, but there’s nothing I can do. I’ve got hope in my legal team,” Arthur told The Associated Press.
Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall called Arthur’s case an “egregious example of how a convicted murderer can manipulate the legal system to avoid justice.”
Arthur has maintained his innocence as his defense team raises questions about the injection procedure and evidence in the case.
“Neither a fingerprint nor a weapon, nor any other physical evidence connects Thomas Arthur to the murder of Troy Wicker,” said Suhana Han, Arthur’s lead lawyer.
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey on Thursday denied Arthur’s request for additional DNA testing on hairs found at the scene.
The case began Feb. 1, 1982, when police responded to a call about a break-in and found riverboat engineer Troy Wicker slain in his bed in the north Alabama city of Muscle Shoals. Arthur was in a prison work-release program at the time for the 1977 slaying of his sister-in-law, a crime he admits to committing.
Wicker’s wife Judy initially told police she came home and was raped by a black man who shot and killed her husband. She later changed her story and testified that she had discussed killing her husband with Arthur, who came to the house wearing an Afro-style wig and with his face painted with makeup, and shot her husband.
He was convicted in 1983, but that conviction was overturned. While awaiting retrial, he escaped jail in 1986 by shooting a guard in the neck. A second conviction followed and also was overturned, but a third conviction stuck.
Arthur asked jurors to give him the death penalty. The decision was strategic, he said, to open up more appellate review.
The state set seven execution dates for Arthur between 2001 and 2016. All were delayed as his legal team fought his sentence.
“He’s a Houdini,” said Janette Grantham, director of the Victims of Crime and Leniency. “He always finds a way to escape.”
The many delays have been painful for Troy Wicker’s family, Grantham said.
“If he does get executed and I hope and pray so – people might not think it’s very good to pray for someone to die. But he is guilty. He killed more than one person,” Grantham said.
His attorneys filed court papers Wednesday with the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, raising questions about the state’s lethal injection procedure and the anesthetic midazolam, to be given at the start of the process.
In December, inmate Ronald Bert Smith coughed for the first 13 minutes of his execution and moved slightly after two consciousness tests. Arthur’s lawyers argued that showed Smith was awake during his execution. The state responded that there was no evidence Smith experienced pain. The 11th Circuit denied the stay request. Arthur appealed that issue to the Supreme Court.
In 2016, Arthur came close to the death chamber.
“We were fixing to go into the room and they were going to put the needle in my arm,” he said, when the U.S. Supreme Court gave him an unexpected reprieve shortly before the death warrant expired at midnight.