Saturday, 8 December 2007

U.S. Supreme Court grants stay to convicted Alabama killer Thomas D. Arthur

Thursday, December 06, 2007 STAN DIEL News staff writer

The U.S. Supreme Court late Wednesday granted a stay of execution to convicted killer Thomas D. Arthur, just one day before he was to be executed for the 1982 murder-for-hire killing of Troy Wicker Jr. of Muscle Shoals.

It was the second time this year Arthur had come within a day of being executed.

Sherrie Arthur Stone, Arthur's daughter, blasted the state of Alabama for scheduling the execution despite what amounts to a national moratorium on the death penalty.

Only one state has executed a prisoner since Sept. 25, when the Supreme Court announced it would hear a Kentucky case challenging the constitutionality of lethal injection. Even that state, Texas, has since halted executions.

"I think it was irresponsible for the state to set this at this time," she said. "They wasted a lot of taxpayers' dollars."

The Supreme Court, in a three-sentence order, delayed Arthur's execution until it determines whether it will hear an appeal in which he challenges Alabama's lethal injection procedure on the same grounds being challenged in the Kentucky case, Baze v. Rees. The court is not expected to decide whether to hear Arthur's case until after it hears the Kentucky case in the spring.

In Montgomery, Assistant Attorney General Clay Crenshaw, the state's capital punishment chief, said he was disappointed with the high court's decision.

He said Arthur's conviction and sentence for "horrible crimes" have been upheld "by every court that's ever looked at it." But he said he wasn't surprised by the high court's action because stays have been granted in other states based on the Kentucky case.

Procedure changed:

Gov. Bob Riley already delayed Arthur's execution once, to allow the Department of Corrections to add a step to its lethal injection procedure after the court announced it would hear the Kentucky case. Before Alabama changed its procedure, it was identical to the one used by Kentucky.

Alabama added a step meant to confirm that the condemned is unconscious. After a barbiturate is administered to render the inmate unconscious, a guard is to speak the prisoner's name, brush a finger over the prisoner's eyelashes and pinch his arm. If the prisoner is deemed unconscious, the execution is to continue, Department of Corrections officials have said.

The state keeps most details of its execution procedure secret, but court documents indicate the state uses the drug Thiopental to cause unconsciousness, Pavulon to cause paralysis and halt breathing, and potassium chloride to stop the heart. Those three drugs make up the most commonly used lethal injection cocktail.

Arthur, now 65, was convicted of killing Wicker, 35, who was shot through the right eye as he slept.

Wicker's wife, Judy, initially told police that a man had raped her and killed her husband. But she later recanted and said she paid Arthur, a work-release inmate with whom she was having an affair, to kill her spouse so she could collect $90,000 in life insurance proceeds.

Advocates, including Amnesty International and The Innocence Project, have championed Arthur's case because of irregularities in each of his three trials, and because they believe modern DNA testing of evidence in the case could prove he is innocent.

Trial irregularities:

Arthur's first two convictions were overturned on appeal. The first was overturned because prosecutors wrongly introduced evidence about a prior murder conviction, and the second because he was questioned after requesting a lawyer. After the second conviction Arthur shot a guard in an escape. The guard survived and Arthur was captured.

Among the trial irregularities cited by Arthur's supporters:

The district attorney who prosecuted Arthur during the final trial represented Wicker's wife as a private attorney when she negotiated early release for testifying against her husband.

Witnesses, some of whom were convicted criminals, drastically changed testimony between the second and third trials, saying they had been bribed or pressured to testify for the prosecution.

Arthur acted as his own counsel during the third trial, and asked for the death penalty even as he professed his innocence. He said at the time that being sentenced to death would give him an advantage on appeal.

Amnesty International and The Innocence Project had appealed to Riley, requesting that he issue a stay and order DNA testing.

A spokeswoman for the governor said Wednesday afternoon that Riley would not stop the execution. Efforts to reach a representative of the governor after the stay was issued were not successful.

Stone, who lives in Tampa but was in Atmore Wednesday to witness her father's execution, said his lawyers notified her of the stay late Wednesday afternoon, and she was still waiting to learn the details.

"We don't know the legalities of it yet, but we got the stay," she said. "We're very happy."

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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