Alabama Inmate at Center of Supreme Court Appeal Executed

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on May 31, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Thomas Arthur was first indicted of murdering Troy Wicker in 1982. Three convictions (two of which were overturned), seven stays of execution, and 35 years later, Arthur was executed by the state of Alabama, mere minutes before his latest execution warrant expired.

Arthur's eighth attempt at a stay was denied by the Supreme Court, despite the dissent of Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who questioned the state's use of death penalty drug midazolam and its denial of phone service to Arthur's attorneys during the execution.

Drug Problem

Arthur's appeal was based partly on the botched execution of another Alabama inmate, Ronald Bert Smith. Smith, executed last year, "appeared to be struggling for breath and heaved and coughed and clenched his left fist after apparently being administered the first drug in the three-drug combination." Arthur was challenging the use of midazolam, the first of three drugs administered during executions that has been linked to numerous botched executions and outlawed in some states.

In her dissent from the Court's decision denying Arthur's request for a stay, Justice Sotomayor wrote: "I continue to doubt whether midazolam is capable of rendering prisoners insensate to the excruciating pain of lethal injection and thus whether midazolam may be constitutionally used in lethal injection protocols."

Phone Problem

Arthur had also requested that his attorneys have access to a phone during the execution, in case anything went wrong. That, too, was denied. "Here," Sotomayor added, "the State has -- with the blessing of the courts below -- compounded the risks inherent in the use of midazolam by denying Arthur's counsel access to a phone through which to seek legal relief if the execution fails to proceed as planned." The Justice saw "no legitimate reason ... to prohibit Arthur's counsel from possessing a phone during the execution, particularly in light of the demonstrated risk that midazolam will fail."

By denying access to the courts, Sotomayor argued, "when Thomas Arthur enters the execution chamber tonight, he will leave his constitutional rights at the door."

Somewhat ironically, Arthur had repeatedly requested the death penalty, as it afforded him more opportunities to appeal his conviction. Arthur maintained his innocence throughout, and his attorneys claimed there was no physical evidence tying him to the murder of his girlfriend's husband. He was pronounced dead 25 minutes after his execution began, apparently without incident.

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