Trial by Fire - Did Texas execute an innocent man?

The fire moved quickly through the house, a one-story wood-frame structure in a working-class neighborhood of Corsicana, in northeast Texas. Flames spread along the walls, bursting through doorways, blistering paint and tiles and furniture. Smoke pressed against the ceiling, then banked downward, seeping into each room and through crevices in the windows, staining the morning sky.
Buffie Barbee, who was eleven years old and lived two houses down, was playing in her back yard when she smelled the smoke. She ran inside and told her mother, Diane, and they hurried up the street; that’s when they saw the smoldering house and Cameron Todd Willingham standing on the front porch, wearing only a pair of jeans, his chest blackened with soot, his hair and eyelids singed. He was screaming, “My babies are burning up!” His children—Karmon and Kameron, who were one-year-old twin girls, and two-year-old Amber—were trapped inside.
Willingham told the Barbees to call the Fire Department, and while Dia…

Alabama inmate this week nears execution for the 7th time

Tommy Arthur
Tommy Arthur
Alabama death row inmate Tommy Arthur on Tuesday was still waiting for the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals to rule on whether it will grant a stay of execution.

Arthur is set to die by lethal injection at 6 p.m. on Thursday [November 3, 2016]. 

If the appeal is granted, it would be the 7th time the 74-year-old's execution has been halted. 6 other times, within days or hours of the appointed time, his execution was stopped. And other than a month on the lam after shooting a jailer in a 1986 escape, the 2nd oldest inmate on death row has spent the better part of his last 33 years in a small cell on death row. 

Arthur denies he was paid to kill a sleeping Muscle Shoals man, Troy Wicker, in 1982. 

"I didn't no more kill Troy Wicker than you did," Arthur told AL.com in a recent telephone interview from his cell. 

3 different juries in trials in 1983, 1987 and 1991, however, thought otherwise and found him guilty. The victim's wife, Judy Wicker, was also convicted of the murder and spent a decade in prison. She testified at one trial she paid Arthur $10,000 of the insurance money for the killing. Judy Wicker and Arthur, who was on work release at the time, were in a romantic relationship, court records show. 

Wicker's family has always felt Arthur was guilty, Janette Grantham, executive director of the group Victims of Crime and Leniency (VOCAL) said this week. 

"There's no doubt he's guilty," Grantham said. "He deserves to be held accountable." 

"They all called him 'Houdini' because he always seems to slip away. But hopefully he won't this time," Grantham said. 

Efforts to reach members of Wicker's family were unsuccessful. 

Grantham, who once worked with victims in the Alabama Attorney General's Office, said one of Wicker's sisters, Peggy Jones, who had closely followed the case won't be at the execution because she is dealing with breast cancer. 

"They waited so long for this ... I just hope they can all find some kind of peace," Grantham said. 

Besides seeking a stay of execution, Arthur's legal team is also appealing to the 11th Circuit to overturn a federal judge's ruling that denied his claims challenging Alabama's new 3-drug lethal injection combination. 

Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley also has not said whether he would grant clemency to Arthur, although the governor has yet to grant clemency for an inmate in the past. Arthur recently wrote Bentley seeking a stay of his execution, help in getting a new hearing, and a moratorium on all executions. 

Arthur, spared execution 6 times since he was convicted in a 1983 contract killing, is asking the governor to stay his execution because he says he is an innocent man. 

If the 11th Circuit denies his request for a stay of execution, then he could appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. 

Meanwhile, Arthur was moved Tuesday into a holding cell by the execution chamber. 

Here are the highlights of Arthur's case: 

-- On Feb. 1, 1982, police found Troy Wicker of Muscle Shoals shot to death in his bed - a gunshot wound to his right eye. 

-- Arthur was convicted of capital murder in 1983. 

-- At the time of the Wicker murder, Arthur was serving at a Decatur work release center for a conviction in the 1977 murder of his sister-in-law, Eloise West, in Marion County. Having 2 murder convictions in that short a span made him eligible for the death penalty. 

-- In 1985, Arthur's conviction in the Wicker case was overturned because details of the earlier murder had been introduced at his trial. 

-- On Jan. 27, 1986, while awaiting retrial, Arthur escaped from the Colbert County jail by shooting a jailer in the neck with a .25 caliber pistol and forcing another jailer to open his cell. He was caught a month later by FBI agents in Knoxville, Tenn., after robbing a bank. 

-- Arthur was retried for the Wicker murder in 1987, with the case moved to Jefferson County because of publicity. He was convicted, but the conviction was again overturned. 

-- Arthur was tried again in Jefferson County and convicted in 1991. That verdict was upheld. 

-- Before he was sentenced, Arthur asked jurors to recommend the death penalty. He said that he did not have a death wish, but that the sentence would provide more access to appeals. A lawyer for the state at that time said Arthur "knows how to work the system." 

-- Tuscumbia attorney William Hovater, who was appointed to defend Arthur after he fired his first two attorneys and later escaped from the Colbert County Jail, told a reporter after one trial that he had worked a plea agreement for Arthur to be sentenced to life without parole, if he pleaded guilty. Arthur declined. "He never admitted that he did it," Hovater told a reporter. 

Arthur has come close to execution 6 previous times - within days or even hours. They include: 

-- April 27, 2001. A federal court issued a stay 2 days before the scheduled execution because of an appeal that was later dismissed. 

-- Sept. 27, 2007. The day of the planned execution Gov. Bob Riley granted a 45-day reprieve so that the state could develop an assessment of whether inmates are unconscious after the 1st drug in the 3-drug protocol is given. 

-- Dec. 6, 2007. One day before, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a stay pending its decision in a case challenging Kentucky's method of lethal injection. The court later upheld Kentucky's method as constitutional. 

-- July 31, 2008. 2 days before, Arthur filed a petition that he was innocent based on an affidavit from another inmate that asserted that the inmate, not Arthur, had killed Wicker. The Alabama Supreme Court issued a stay to allow investigation of the claim. A Jefferson County judge later found that Arthur had helped the other inmate to make the claim and said the 2 inmates had tried to defraud the court. 

-- March 31, 2012. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a stay March 28 and ordered the district court to hear Arthur's claims that Alabama's lethal injection method violated his right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment and his due process rights. Alabama later changed its drug combination because one of the drugs was no longer available. 

-- Feb. 19, 2015. Watkins ruled 2 days before the scheduled execution that the 2012 stay remains in place and allowed Arthur to file an amended complaint challenging the new drug protocol. 

Current appeal 

Arthur's current appeal to the 11th Circuit says the district court judge improperly denied Arthur's request to amend his complaint to request the firing squad as an alternative execution method. When challenging a method of execution, inmates must suggest another form of execution under a U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Arthur's attorneys argue that the judge erroneously ruled that the alternative method must be expressly permitted by state law. 

The judge also rejected Arthur's claim that pentobarbital is a feasible and readily implemented alternative execution drug. An Alabama Department of Corrections official testified at Arthur's hearing earlier this year that the state couldn't find a supply of that drug. 

Among the other arguments, Arthur's attorneys claim that the judge erroneously rejected their arguments that the first drug in the lethal injection protocol - midazolam - would cause him to suffer a painful heart attack before being sedated. 

Arthur and his attorneys have also said there was never any physical evidence, such as fingerprints or DNA, linking him to Wicker's death. Arthur said that not all the evidence has been tested that might point to another person. 

Arthur also points to Judy Wicker's testimony at her murder trial in which she claimed a burglar raped her and killed her husband. Wicker, after her conviction, testified at one of Arthur's later trials that she had given Arthur $10,000 - part of the insurance money - to kill her husband. 

Arthur and his attorneys say the rape kit performed on Judy Wicker is missing. 

Arthur in June asked AL.com to conduct a videotaped in-person interview at Holman prison. But prison officials said that is not allowed under the law. 

Arthur claimed prison officials and the Attorney General's Office didn't want publicity. "They don't want a face, they don't want a personality to reach the public. They want to portray me as a mad dog foaming-at-the-mouth heathen killer," Arthur said in one interview. "They don't want the public to see that I'm a human being, that I'm not an idiot. They don't want to put what I'm saying with a voice where the general public can see." 

Efforts to reach Arthur's daughter, Sherrie Author Stone, who at one time had a website for her father to support his appeals, were unsuccessful for this story. 

But she did talk to reporters with the Times Daily newspaper in Florence for a story on Sunday. 

"My heart goes out to the families of those he killed and to the families of those he injured in some way. I am so sorry for your loss and pain. I pray you find peace if you have not been able to. There are probably many others we do not know about," Stone told the Times Daily. 

Stone, who has a brother, also talked to the newspaper about how abusive her father was to their mother. 

"He beat and shot my 1st stepmother. He beat my 2nd stepmother, and shot and killed her sister and almost killed her cousin," Stone told the Times Daily. 

Source: al.com, November 2, 2016

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