7 times in 16 years Tommy Arthur has had his execution delayed. As he prepares for what could be his final appointment with the death chamber, he tells Ed Pilkington about a grisly - and traumatic - cycle
Tommy Arthur is caught in a ghoulish production of Groundhog Day. 7 times over the past 16 years he has been scheduled to be put to death in Alabama, and 7 times the courts have delayed the execution, most recently in November just minutes before he was strapped to the gurney.
Now Arthur, 75, finds himself once again caught in this grisly cycle, with only hours to go before his 8th and possibly final appointment with the death chamber. At 6pm on Thursday, barring intervention by Alabama's governor or the courts, he will be pumped with medical drugs until he dies.
To come so close to being killed by the state is extraordinary on any occasion, but 8 times? How has he endured repeated execution dates in 2001, 2007, 2008, 2012, 2015, 2016 and now 25 May 2017?
"It's a question of mind over matter," Arthur said in a phone interview from death row in Alabama's Holman correctional facility. "You can either let a stressful situation break you so you can't breathe, or you hold on to hope and use your every waking moment to fight."
By this late point in the process, most condemned inmates would be ordering their final meal. Not Arthur. "I don't believe in that last meal baloney - I never have the appetite. When they're trying to kill you, you're not hungry."
Other condemned prisoners at this stage would also be consoling themselves with a stream of visits from their loved ones. Not Arthur. He gave up having visitors after the sixth scheduled execution as the stress on both him and them was too much.
"It almost killed my eldest daughter, Sherrie," he said. "She came to 6 execution dates, and the stress of her father about to be killed was so traumatic it damaged her heart, she almost lost her business and home. So I told her to disconnect, I didn't want her coming any more. She didn't come to the 7th, and she won't be coming to this one."
Tommy Arthur has spent the past 34 years on death row.
Tommy Arthur is one of the longest serving capital prisoners in the US. He has spent the past 34 years on death row, 25 of those in the same 5ft x 8ft cell from which he emerges only briefly every other day to take a shower. He has a vivid way of describing his living conditions: "You couldn't put a baboon in this cell, they'd shut the zoo down."
Arthur was sentenced to death for the 1982 murder of Troy Wicker. The state accused him of carrying out a contract killing at the behest of Wicker's wife Judy, with whom Arthur had been having an affair; Judy Wicker was prosecuted separately and given life imprisonment.
At the time of the murder, Arthur was out of prison on work release, having served 5 years of a life sentence for the 2nd-degree murder of Eloise West, the sister of his common-law wife. He pleaded guilty to that unpremeditated killing, though he insisted it was an accident fueled by alcohol.
By contrast, he has always claimed innocence in the murder of Troy Wicker. Over the years he has been deeply involved in pursuing his legal appeals, and speaks of his own case with striking fluency and command of detail.
He points out that at her own trial Judy Wicker testified that the murderer was a burglar in her home who had beaten her up and raped her before killing her husband. It was only 5 years later, after she had been offered a deal to change her evidence that would see her get out of prison after serving only 10 years, that she pointed the finger at Arthur.
His lawyer, Suhana Han, emphasised the weakness of the prosecution case against him. "Neither a fingerprint or a weapon, nor any other physical evidence connects Arthur to the murder of Troy Wicker," she told the Guardian.
The prisoner and his legal team have been pushing for the latest DNA testing technology to be applied to crime scene materials, though the courts have rebuffed their requests and crucial evidence has gone missing. A rape kit taken from Judy Wicker at the time of the murder was lost or destroyed years ago, the state claims, while hairs found near the victim's body and in a wig presumed to have been used by the killer have not been subjected to the most sophisticated forensic techniques.
Arthur has sent a handwritten letter to Alabama's governor, Kay Ivey, pleading with her, so far without reply: "Please Governor Ivey, don't kill me with this evidence never being DNA-tested," he wrote.
Perhaps the best remaining hope for the condemned man is that the US supreme court will once again step in and postpone the execution. His lawyers have an emergency motion before the 11th circuit court of appeals relating to the sedative midazolam that has been used in several botched executions in modern times.
Midazolam was deployed in the most recent Alabama execution of Ron Smith in December, when the inmate heaved and coughed for 13 minutes. The motion argues that were the state to go ahead and use midazolam again on Thursday, despite what happened to Smith, it would be guilty of intentionally inflicting cruel and unusual punishment on Arthur, banned under the US constitution.
As Thursday's deadline approaches, Tommy Arthur's room for manoeuvre closes. Asked how he was preparing for the possibility that this time he might actually be executed, he said.
He had only 1 wish: to be allowed to issue a public apology to his children. "I failed them as a father, and I'm so sorry for that," he said.
As it happens, he will be able to deliver that message in person to Sherrie. A few hours after the phone interview with Arthur had ended, a member of his legal team contacted the Guardian to say that there had been a change of plan: his eldest daughter had decided that despite the trauma she wanted to be present - she will be by his side should his 8th summons to the death chamber turn out to be his last.
Source: The Guardian, May 24, 2017
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