ATMORE, Ala. (AP) — A condemned Alabama inmate has survived the seventh attempt to execute him by lethal injection thanks to a last-minute stay from the U.S. Supreme Court.
In a split decision, five justices voted late Thursday to stay the execution of Tommy Arthur as the high court considers whether to take up his challenge to the state's lethal injection procedure. The reprieve came shortly before 11 p.m. as Arthur, 74, was waiting in a holding cell outside the execution chamber at a south Alabama prison. His death warrant expired an hour later, and Arthur was returned to death row to await the next development in his 3-decade-old case.
"We are greatly relieved by the Supreme Court's decision granting a stay and now hope for the opportunity to present the merits of Mr. Arthur's claims to the Court," Arthur's attorney Suhana Han said in a statement.
Arthur was convicted in 1982 for the murder-for-hire killing of Troy Wicker. Police found Wicker shot through the eye as he slept in his Muscle Shoals home. Wicker's wife initially told authorities she had been raped and that an intruder killed her husband, but she later testified she had sex with Arthur and promised him $10,000 to kill her husband.
Arthur, who maintains his innocence, has waged a lengthy legal battle challenging both his conviction and the constitutionality of the death penalty. An execution date has been set seven times for Arthur, but each time he has won a reprieve from the courts or other means.
Alabama's attorney general criticized the last-minute stay.
"In my view, there is no 'courtesy' in voting to deny justice to the victims of a notorious and cold-blooded killer," Luther Strange said in a statement.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote Thursday that he did not think the case merited a stay, but voted to grant it as a courtesy to the four justices who wanted to "more fully consider the suitability of this case for review." The execution stay will expire if the court does not take up Arthur's case.
Arthur spoke with his son and others by telephone during the evening and did not request a final meal as he waited to find out if his execution would move forward after decades of legal battles, said Alabama Department of Corrections spokesman Bob Horton.
His latest appeal largely centers on a requirement that condemned inmates challenging their method of execution must name a feasible alternate method.
Arthur filed a lawsuit challenging the state's lethal injection procedure as cruel and unusual punishment. He suggested a firing squad and another lethal injection drug, but the judge said Arthur had not identified a source for alternate drugs and noted that Alabama law does not explicitly name the firing squad as an allowed form of execution.
Arthur's attorney argued the judge's interpretation makes it virtually impossible for death-row inmates to challenge death penalty procedures in states that use lethal injection.
Juries twice convicted Arthur, but those convictions were overturned on appeal. During his third trial in 1991, Arthur ignored the advice of his attorneys and asked the jury to sentence him to death. He said at the time that he didn't have a death wish, but that a death sentence offered more avenues of appeal.
Arthur also sent Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley a four-page handwritten letter requesting a stay of execution, arguing he had never had a fair trial and that potential DNA evidence in the case had not been reviewed. Bentley did not intervene in the case.
"I'm not guilty and did not have a fair trial in 1991," Arthur wrote.
Wicker's wife, Judy Wicker, served 10 years in prison for her part in the killing.