By David Beasley
(Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday ordered a last-minute hold on the Alabama execution of a man convicted of murder for the 1982 slaying of his girlfriend's husband.
Thomas Douglas Arthur, now 74, has been on death row for more than three decades having been convicted of shooting to death Troy Wicker as he slept, court records showed. Prosecutors said Arthur's girlfriend, Judy Wicker, paid him $10,000 to kill her husband.
Alabama had sought to execute Arthur despite questions about its death penalty process following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in January that struck down a Florida law giving judges powers that juries should wield in deciding death eligibility.
The U.S. Supreme Court has since ordered Alabama to review similar practices in four other cases.
"Upon consideration of the application of counsel for the applicant, it is ordered that execution of the sentence of death is hereby stayed pending further order of the undersigned or of the court," stated the one-page order signed by Justice Clarence Thomas.
The order did not state a reason for the stay of execution.
Arthur's scheduled execution followed three trials and another man's confession to the crime.
He had been scheduled to die on Thursday evening at the Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore. He would have been this year's 18th U.S. execution and the state's second, the Death Penalty Information Center said.
Arthur had two convictions overturned on constitutional grounds, including improper introduction of evidence about a prior murder conviction. After his third conviction in 1991, he asked the jury to sentence him to death, seeking more time with his children during prison visits and a private cell.
The killing in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, occurred when Arthur was in a prison work release program after the earlier murder.
Judy Wicker told police a black man raped her, knocked her unconscious and shot her husband at their home. Arthur, who is white, disguised himself as a black man, prosecutors said.
At her trial, Judy Wicker denied Arthur was the killer but later changed her testimony during his trial, Arthur's lawyers said. She was convicted of murder and paroled after 10 years in prison, according to the Alabama Department of Corrections.
In 2008, another inmate, Bobby Ray Gilbert, confessed to killing Wicker but a state court held that Gilbert and Arthur had conspired to submit a fake confession.
Limited crime scene testing found no DNA link to Gilbert or Arthur. Alabama lost a rape kit that might have cleared Arthur, his lawyers said.
(Reporting by David Beasley in Atlanta and Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Grant McCool, Bill Trott and Simon Cameron-Moore)