Last week, minutes before his death warrant was set to expire, the State of Alabama executed inmate Tommy Arthur for the 1982 contract killing of Troy Wicker in Colbert County.
“I’m sorry I failed you as a father,” Arthur said when asked for his final remarks, according to those who were present. One of his children, daughter Sherrie Stone, watched from the witness room. “I love you more than anything on earth,” he finished, gesturing Stone a thumbs-up and again mouthing “I love you.”
Arthur, age 75, maintained his innocence in the 1982 murder that landed him a place on death row. After decades of appeals, though, this, Arthur’s eighth scheduled execution date, would be his last.
At about 11:45 p.m., officials began the lethal injection process by administering midazolam, a controversial sedative some experts say does not work effectively in “high-stress situations.” Then, after multiple consciousness tests, Arthur was administered the two other drugs in Alabama’s three-drug lethal injection protocol. For the next few minutes, Arthur’s breathing grew more shallow, his skin whitened and his fingertips turned blue. He was pronounced dead at 12:15 a.m., according to prison spokesman Bob Horton.
Arthur’s execution stemmed from his 1982 murder-for-hire of Troy Wicker in Muscle Shoals. According to her testimony at one of his three trials, Wicker’s wife Judy paid Tommy Arthur $10,000 from her husband’s life insurance policy for the murder. Originally, Judy Wicker claimed she had been raped and her husband murdered by black men, but later, after being sentenced to life in prison, Wicker admitted Arthur’s involvement in the murder. Wicker was later released on parole, something Arthur has always pointed to as the reason for her claims.
Prior to Arthur’s execution, which had initially been scheduled for 6 p.m., Alabama Prison Commissioner Jeff Dunn and Holman Correctional Facility Warden Cynthia Stewart met with Troy Wicker’s two sons, who later witnessed the execution, according to officials. They chose not to make a statement, but Vicki Wilkerson, the victim’s niece, has previously spoken out about the person Troy Wicker was and about the hardship the execution’s delay had caused their family.
“He was a big, caring, handsome, bear of a man,” Wilkerson wrote in an email to the media of her late uncle, who was often called Junior. “The comedian of the family. My other two uncles were quiet and kind of shy, but not Junior. He was the life of the party.”
All of those memories, though, were at times eclipsed by the reality of Arthur’s ever-changing execution date.
“There are no words to describe the living hell that this has been for the Wicker family,” Wilkerson went on. “We are hoping and praying that the execution is not delayed any further. Although this statement may be perceived by others as not a very Christian statement, please do not judge, because you haven’t lived through this tragedy. Our family deserves closure and justice for the loss of Junior and the nightmare that we have lived through. Tommy Arthur placed our family through a living hell for a pathetic $10,000 payout.”
Even on the day of the scheduled execution, delays were the norm. Scheduled originally for 6 p.m., the execution was delayed a final time by a temporary stay granted by the U.S. Supreme Court, which often reviews last-minute death penalty cases.
Later in the night, just over an hour before the warrant authorizing Arthur’s execution expired, the process lurched forward. Select members of the press chosen by lottery were moved in a van from a haphazard media center a few minutes from the prison to just outside death row while final preparations were being made. From the van, members of the media could hear yelling from death row, which currently holds just under 200 inmates.
“We did that not knowing if the condemned man had a family or anybody back there in his support,” said Anthony Ray Hinton, an exonerated former death row inmate, explaining the probable reason for the screaming coming from the prison. “We were just trying to let him know that we were still with him to the very end.”
Prison spokesman Bob Horton said that on his last day, Arthur had had no visitors but made calls to a friend, a son and a daughter, and his attorneys. Arthur refused both breakfast and a final meal, but requested that a photo of his family be present in the execution chamber, a request prison officials say was granted.
In the hours leading up to his final breath, Arthur’s defense team worked to challenge the execution’s constitutionality with two main arguments. First, Arthur’s lawyers argued that midazolam, the sedative used in Alabama’s lethal injection protocol, has caused “botched” executions in the past, including here in Alabama, inflicting cruel and unusual punishment on those subjected to it.
“Such an ‘intentional infliction of gratuitous pain’ is the very ‘evil the Eighth Amendment targets’ with its prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments,” one of Arthur’s final appeals read. “And because the ADOC [Alabama Department of Corrections] injected agonizingly painful execution drugs into Ronald Bert Smith Jr. knowing that Mr. Smith was conscious and sensate, the ADOC ran afoul of the Eighth Amendment’s absolute prohibition on methods of execution that ‘involve torture or a lingering death.’ The ADOC plans to do the same to Mr. Arthur in a matter of days.”
The state’s last execution — that of Ronald Smith in December 2016 — indeed encountered complications. Smith coughed and heaved for around 13 minutes after being injected with the initial sedative, which is supposed to render the inmate “insensate.” According to media witnesses, Smith was visibly moving, even clenching a fist, as officials conducted consciousness tests. Prisons commissioner Jeff Dunn later said of the execution that “from where I was seated I didn’t see any reaction to the consciousness assessment,” although eyewitness accounts contradict that claim.
Arthur’s defense team also presented a second argument supporting a delay in execution: that without access to a phone, lawyers would be helpless to ask a court for intervention if problems occurred, as they did in the Smith execution. ADOC policy bars the use of any electronic devices inside the execution chamber.
Both of these arguments were heard, and eventually rejected, by the U.S. Supreme Court when it lifted its temporary stay of execution, allowing the process to move forward. Only one judge — Justice Sonia Sotomayor — dissented, writing that she would have granted the stay of execution based on the strength of both arguments.
“Alabama plans to execute Thomas Arthur tonight using a three-drug lethal-injection protocol that uses midazolam as a sedative,” Justice Sotomayor wrote. “I continue to doubt whether midazolam is capable of rendering prisoners insensate to the excruciating pain of lethal injection and thus whether midazolam may be constitutionally used in lethal injection protocols. Here, the state has — with the blessing of the courts below — compounded the risks inherent in the use of midazolam by denying Arthur’s counsel access to a phone through which to seek legal relief if the execution fails to proceed as planned. [The court’s] action means that when Thomas Arthur enters the execution chamber tonight, he will leave his constitutional rights at the door.”
The execution was the first presided over by Gov. Kay Ivey, who received a handwritten letter from Arthur asking for clemency.
“How to proceed when faced with a potential execution is one of the most difficult decisions I will ever have to make as governor,” Ivey said in a statement. “After much prayer and careful and deliberate consideration, I thought it best to allow the decision of a jury of Tommy Arthur’s peers to stand. In allowing the execution to proceed this evening, the rule of law was upheld, and Mr. Wicker’s family can finally rest knowing that his murderer has faced justice. Three times Tommy Arthur was tried, convicted and sentenced to death … No governor covets the responsibility of weighing the merits of life or death; but it is a burden I accept as part of my pledge to uphold the laws of this state. Mr. Arthur was rightfully convicted and sentenced, and tonight, that sentence was rightfully and justly carried out.”
Ivey also received hundreds of requests from the public to halt Arthur’s execution, according to her office. The execution was also the first for state Attorney General Steven Marshall in his new position as the state’s top law enforcement officer.
“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,” Marshall said in a statement. “Most importantly, tonight the family of Troy Wicker can begin the long-delayed process of recovery from a painful loss.”
After the execution, Sherrie Stone, Arthur’s daughter, met with members of the media at a hotel in Atmore to discuss her point of view.
“First of all, I would like to express my deepest sympathy for the family of Troy Wicker,” Stone began. “I hope what has transpired today will allow them to have some peace and closure. I’ve never known for certain whether my father killed Troy Wicker. At times I was convinced he did. At times I believed he was innocent. Over decades you go through a roller coaster. Now I’ll never know the truth because the evidence that could prove if my father was innocent or guilty has not been tested using the latest DNA testing procedure.”
Stone went on to call for mandatory DNA testing in every capital case.
A nationwide Gallup poll released last October indicated a 60 percent approval rating for the death penalty in the U.S., its lowest level of support since 1972. The same poll suggested only 50 percent of Americans believed it was “applied fairly.”
According to the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center, more than 155 people have been released from death row with evidence of their innocence since 1973. Six have been in Alabama.
Locally, after initially being convicted of capital murder in 2000, William Ziegler introduced new evidence in his case on appeal and pleaded guilty to murder in 2015, securing his release from death row. Last March, former Alabama State Trooper George Martin was exonerated from a death penalty and released from prison after Mobile County Circuit Court Judge Robert Smith found his prosecution to be “riddled with impropriety and missteps.” Martin is currently suing a litany of local and state investigators and prosecutors over his conviction.
Currently, 31 states have laws that may impose the death penalty on defendants convicted of capital murder, but since 2007, New York, New Jersey, New Mexico, Maryland, Delaware, Illinois and Connecticut have passed measures to abolish the punishment. In the same time, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Washington and Oregon have imposed gubernatorial moratoria on executions.
But Arthur’s execution won’t be the state’s last for long. Robert Melson is scheduled to be executed Thursday, June 8, at 6 p.m. for the 1994 murder of three people — ages 17, 18 and 23 — during a robbery of an Etowah County Popeye’s restaurant.
Meanwhile, in Mobile County, capital murder defendant Jamal Jackson is scheduled to be sentenced for the murder of Satori Richardson on June 15. If he receives the death penalty, he’ll join 183 other convicts currently on Alabama’s death row — 16 of whom were sentenced in Mobile County.
Gabriel Tynes contributed to this report.