Prison bars
REUTERS/Stephen Lam

Alabama inmate Tommy Arthur — called the "Houdini" of death row by some after he got seven prior execution dates postponed — is scheduled to be put to death Thursday evening.

Arthur, 75, was convicted in the 1982 murder-for-hire slaying of Troy Wicker. The twisting legal saga over the years has involved three trials, a jail escape and a lengthy court battle by Arthur's pro bono legal team challenging the humaneness of lethal injection.

Tommy Arthur
Death row inmate Tommy Arthur in an undated picture from the Alabama Department of Corrections. Alabama Department of Corrections/Handout via Reuters

Arthur's lawyers have made a flurry of last-minute appeals, both in and out of court, seeking to halt the execution planned at 6 p.m. CDT Thursday.

They have called for additional DNA testing on the wig worn by the assailant and argued that the coughs and movements of an inmate executed in December show that midazolam — the opening sedative in Alabama's execution protocol — wouldn't properly anesthetize him before he's injected with drugs to stop his heart and lungs.

Speaking by telephone Monday from a south Alabama prison, Arthur acknowledged his hopes of gaining an eighth reprieve are diminishing. "I'm terrified, but there's nothing I can do. I've got hope in my legal team," Arthur said in the interview.

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall called Arthur's case an "egregious example of how a convicted murderer can manipulate the legal system to avoid justice."

Arthur has maintained his innocence even as his defence team raises questions about the injection procedure and evidence in the case.

"Neither a fingerprint nor a weapon, nor any other physical evidence connects Thomas Arthur to the murder of Troy Wicker," said Suhana Han, Arthur's lead lawyer.

The legal saga began Feb. 1, 1982, when police responded to a call about a break-in and found riverboat engineer Troy Wicker slain in his bed in the north Alabama city of Muscle Shoals. Arthur was in a prison work-release program at the time for the 1977 slaying of his sister-in-law, a crime he admits to committing.

Wicker's wife Judy initially told police she came home and was raped by a black man who shot and killed her husband. She later changed her story and testified that she had discussed killing her husband with Arthur, who came to the house wearing an Afro-style wig and with his face painted with makeup, and shot her husband.

He was convicted in 1983, but that conviction was overturned. While awaiting retrial, he escaped jail in 1986 by shooting a guard in the neck. He remained a fugitive for more than a month. A second conviction followed and also was overturned, but a third conviction stuck.

Arthur asked jurors to give him the death penalty. The decision was strategic, he said, to open up more appellate review.

The state set seven execution dates for Arthur between 2001 and 2016. All were delayed as a pro bono legal team fought his sentence.

"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.

"If he does get executed and I hope and pray so — people might not think it's very good to pray for someone to die. But he is guilty. He killed more than one person," Grantham said.

His attorneys filed court papers Wednesday with the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, raising questions about the state's lethal injection procedure and the anesthetic to be given at the start of the process.

In December, inmate Ronald Bert Smith coughed for the first 13 minutes of his execution and moved slightly after two consciousness tests. Arthur's lawyers argued that Smith was awake during his execution. The state responded that there was no evidence Smith experienced pain.

In 2016, Arthur came close to the death chamber.

"We were fixing to go into the room and they were going to put the needle in my arm," he said, when the U.S. Supreme Court gave him an unexpected reprieve shortly before the death warrant expired at midnight.