Tommy Arthur has had his execution postponed seven times since 2001, so many delays that victims’ rights advocates derisively call him the “Houdini” of death row. He says he is innocent and is fighting for an eighth reprieve, but he is losing optimism: “They are going to kill me this time.”
Arthur, now 75, is scheduled to be put to death at 6 p.m. CDT Thursday for the 1982 murder-for-hire slaying of Troy Wicker.
Wicker’s wife, Judy, initially told police she came home and was raped by a black man who shot and killed her husband. After her conviction, she changed her story and testified that she had discussed killing her husband with Arthur, who wore a wig and painted his face in an attempt to look like a black man.
But he is unequivocal: “I did not commit that crime,” he said during a recent telephone interview from prison.
“I won’t give up ’til I draw my last breath. I won’t give up,” he said.
When police found Troy Wicker shot through the eye in his bed on Feb. 1, 1982, Arthur was already in a prison work-release program for the 1977 slaying of his sister-in-law. He admits to that crime, but says he only meant to scare her by firing a shot over her head.
Police first looked into Arthur when a tip came in saying a work-release inmate had a stack of $100 bills. Arthur said he won the money in a poker game. But investigators said they also found phone calls between Judy Wicker and Arthur.
He was convicted in 1983, but that conviction was overturned. While awaiting retrial, he escaped from jail in 1986 by shooting a jailer in the neck with a pistol and forcing another jailer to open his cell door. He remained a fugitive for more than a month. A second conviction followed and also was overturned, but a third conviction stuck.
At each trial, Arthur — initially to the surprise of his lawyers — asked jurors to give him the death penalty. The decision was strategic, he said, to open up more appellate review.
The state set execution dates for Arthur in 2001, 2003, 2007, 2008, 2012, 2014 and 2016. All were delayed as a pro bono legal team fought his convictions. Arthur has won multiple execution delays, partly because his attorneys have pursued appeals arguing lethal injection procedures would be painful because he suffers from a heart condition.
“He’s a Houdini,” said Janette Grantham, director of the Victims of Crime and Leniency. “He always finds a way to escape.”
The many delays have been painful for Troy Wicker’s family, Grantham said, including one of his sisters, who died of cancer soon after Arthur’s last reprieve.
“I consider that he killed her, too, because she just fought so hard to get justice for her brother, and it never came,” Grantham said
Arthur says that there is no physical evidence linking him to scene and that Judy Wicker changed her story as a “get out of jail free card.” His defense has asked for modern DNA testing on the wig the killer wore, arguing the prosecution’s case would “fall apart” if it shows someone else’s DNA. Judy Wicker’s rape kit cannot be found to be tested.
He has appealed to Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey to intervene.
Arthur’s recent legal challenges have largely centered on the state’s method of execution, including the use of the sedative midazolam to render inmates unconscious. The state’s last execution using midazolam took longer than expected as the inmate coughed for the first 13 minutes of the procedure.
In 2016, Arthur was minutes away from execution when the U.S. Supreme Court gave him an unexpected reprieve.
“We were fixing to go into the room and they were going to put the needle in my arm,” he said.
Back then, he asked to put a picture of his four children on the back of his Bible so he could look up at them as he died. The request was denied. They are not expected to witness his execution Thursday.
“I would like to publicly apologize to my children, all of them,” he said. “I want to apologize for not being the father that I should have been and could have been. I failed as a father.”