Alabama death row inmate gets seventh stay of execution: Why now?

The US Supreme Court did not give a reason for the stay, which it ordered on Thursday. Thomas Arthur's lawyers have been fighting the use of a controversial execution drug.

Alabama Department of Corrections/AP
The US Supreme Court on Thursday issued stayed the execution of Thomas Arthur, shown here at Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Ala. An appellate court on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016.

For the seventh time, the planned execution of Thomas Douglas Arthur did not go forward as scheduled.

The execution was set for Thursday evening, until a one-page order from the US Supreme Court called for a last-minute stay of execution. It’s the latest in a series of events – including two overturned convictions and a false confession – that has kept Mr. Arthur on death row for more than three decades. Arthur was sentenced to death after being convicted of the 1982 murder of Troy Wicker, his girlfriend’s husband.

Though the court order did not state its reasons for the stay of execution, Arthur’s lawyers have been challenging Alabama’s lethal injection procedure, saying it constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. 

States that use lethal injections have been looking for alternatives to traditional drug cocktails since the European Union banned companies from selling these states the drugs they had been using. One substitute drug is midazolam. Arthur’s lawyers argue that midazolam, the first of three drugs used by Alabama, causes “excruciatingly painful and agonizing effects of the second and third drugs.” Consequently, they say, the execution would violate Arthur’s Eighth Amendment rights.

A similar case was brought before the Supreme Court on behalf of three death-row inmates in Oklahoma last year after the state began using midazolam. It was evident that the lethal injections were not as quick nor as painless as they were intended to be, with some recipients of the cocktail taking as long as two hours to die.

In a 5-to-4 split, the justices upheld Oklahoma’s lethal injection, saying that recently added safeguards, like upping the dosage and systems to monitor an inmate’s level of consciousness, prevented it from going against the Eighth Amendment. In the majority opinion, Justice Samuel Alito also observed that the inmates had not identified a less painful method of execution, which a 2008 ruling required they do.

Justices Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who dissented, argued that all forms of the death penalty were cruel and unusual. This made it unconstitutional and meant that it should be abolished nationwide, they wrote.

Alabama has also been reviewing four other death row cases after the Supreme Court ruled in January that judges could not take on a jury’s power to decide whether a defendant deserved the death penalty.

Arthur’s first two convictions were overturned on constitutional grounds. After the third, he asked the jury for the death penalty. In 2008, another inmate, Bobby Ray Gilbert, claimed to have murdered Mr. Wicker, but a state court ultimately determined that Arthur and Mr. Gilbert had fabricated the confession together. There is no DNA evidence linking Arthur to the crime, and his lawyers say that Alabama lost a rape kit that might have exonerated him.

Judy Wicker, who prosecutors said paid Arthur $10,000 to kill her husband, was convicted of murder but paroled after 10 years in prison, the Alabama Department of Corrections said. Initially, Ms. Wicker had claimed to have been raped and her husband killed by an unknown assailant. 

Material from Reuters contributed to this report.

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