WASHINGTON — Thomas Arthur’s luck finally ran out late Thursday night on his eighth date with Alabama’s lethal injection gurney.
The Supreme Court denied Arthur’s last-minute petition seeking yet another reprieve with just minutes to go before he would have survived to fight another round in court. As a result, the aging Arizona prisoner was executed at 12:15 a.m. CT for a 1982 murder he claims he did not commit.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented from the court’s otherwise unsigned decision to allow the execution to go forward. She said his lawyers should have been allowed to take a cellphone into the witness area so they could alert the courts if anything went wrong with the lethal injection, as it has in the past.
“When Thomas Arthur enters the execution chamber tonight, he will leave his constitutional rights at the door,” Sotomayor said.
The justices had dealt with Arthur before, most recently in November, when they granted his seventh stay, and in February and March, when they refused to hear his request for a firing squad rather than a lethal injection. Two justices dissented then and said Arthur faced the potential for “intolerable and needless agony” during his execution.
Now in its 35th year, the saga surrounding Arthur’s three trials and eight execution dates for the point-blank shooting of Troy Wicker in Muscle Shoals, Ala., had become an object lesson for both sides in the national debate over the death penalty, in steady decline since 1999.
“Thirty-four years after he was first sentenced to death for the murder of a Colbert County man, Thomas Arthur’s protracted attempt to escape justice is finally at an end,” state Attorney General Steve Marshall said. “Most importantly, tonight, the family of Troy Wicker can begin the long-delayed process of recovery from a painful loss.”
Rather than life in prison without parole, Arthur originally sought a death sentence because it would afford him more avenues to appeal, as well as more privacy and time with his children. “He was indeed prescient,” said Clay Crenshaw, the state’s chief deputy attorney general.
State officials argued that he survived until Thursday only because of his “long-term manipulation of the federal and state courts,” even gaining one of his reprieves by presenting perjured testimony.
Victims’ rights groups lamented the failed efforts on the part of Wicker’s family to see justice done, including several trips to Alabama’s death chamber interrupted at the 11th hour. “I call him a Houdini, because he keeps getting out of it,” said Janette Grantham, state director of Victims of Crime and Leniency, before the Supreme Court’s order.
Arthur’s lawyers said the state had denied access to critical evidence that would prove his innocence, maintained a unique sentencing system that allows non-unanimous juries like Arthur’s to impose death sentences, and shrouded its lethal injection protocol in secrecy.
“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,” lead attorney Suhana Han said before the execution was completed.
A penalty in decline
The potential for killing an innocent man or woman was one of the factors cited in 2015 by Justice Stephen Breyer when he and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented from the Supreme Court’s decision upholding Oklahoma’s lethal injection protocol, which was similar to Alabama’s. Breyer also criticized the death penalty’s arbitrary application across geographic and racial lines, decades-long delays that detract from its effect as a deterrent, and the declining number of states and counties using it.
At 75, just two years younger than the oldest prisoner to be executed since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976, Arthur lived through all that. Since his first conviction for Wicker’s murder in 1983, 137 prisoners on death row nationally have been exonerated — including Anthony Hinton, who spent three decades on Alabama’s death row before being released.
Most death sentences now are handed down in 2% of the nation’s counties. The average time on death row grew from six years to 16. And 13 states have abolished capital punishment or imposed a moratorium on executions.