On May 26, 75-year-old Tommy Arthur died by lethal injection in Alabama’s Holman Correctional Facility, ending a decades-long legal drama begun 34 years earlier.
Sentenced to death for the 1982 murder-for-hire shooting of the sleeping husband of the woman with whom he was having an affair, Arthur was scheduled for execution seven times between 2001 and 2016, but each time the state was stymied by challenges brought by his volunteer legal team.
At the time of the slaying, Arthur was on work release while serving a life sentence for the 1977 second-degree murder of his common-law wife’s sister. Judy Wicker, the wife of the slain man originally claimed her husband had been killed by an unknown intruder, but eventually recanted, saying she paid Arthur $10,000, part of the proceeds she received from a her husband’s life insurance policy.
Testifying against Arthur repeatedly in his trials for aggravated murder, Wicker was convicted of charges related to her husband’s murder and ended up serving 10 years. Two of Arthur’s trials produced convictions that were overturned on appeal, before he was finally found guilty and again sentenced to death in 1992.
The day before his execution, Arthur won a brief stay from the U.S. Supreme Court, only to see it lifted later the same day, and his request for the high court to hear an appeal was denied. Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented to both actions, saying she remained concerned about the use of the sedative midazolam in the state’s three-drug execution protocol, questioning its constitutionality in case it failed to render the condemned inmate incapable of feeling excruciating pain as the two other drugs paralyzed his respiratory system and stopped his heart.
Sotomayor’s dissent also cited examples of apparently botched executions in recent years, and noted one federal appeals court had blocked the state of Ohio from using a three-drug execution protocol that included midazolam. Press accounts of the execution described Arthur as seeming to drift off to sleep after being given the sedative, however.
Sotomayor’s dissent also took issue with the state denying Arthur’s counsel the right to have his cellphone when witnessing the execution, in order to be able to call a court to seek legal relief if the execution appeared to be causing Arthur unusual pain. She stated the state had no legitimate reason to block Arthur’s lawyer from having his cellphone while witnessing the carrying out of his client’s death sentence, and as a result the condemned inmate would “leave his constitutional rights at the door” when he entered the execution chamber.
A federal district court judge had upheld the state’s excluding the lawyer’s phone. In February the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear Arthur’s challenge to the constitutionality of Alabama’s three-drug execution protocol.
The Supreme Court’s brief consideration of Arthur’s final appeal moved his execution time from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m.— an hour before the execution order was due to expire. Afterward, a statement from state Attorney General Steve Marshall said the execution had brought to an end Arthur’s “protracted effort to escape justice” 34 years after he was first sentenced, and would allow the victim’s family to begin their long-delayed process of recovery.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.