In 1983, 41-year-old Alabama man Tommy Arthur was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. In the 34 years which have followed, Arthur was scheduled to die seven times and each time he escaped the death chamber with a last minute reprieve. On 26 May 2017, however, on his eighth scheduled execution date, Tommy Arthur was executed by lethal injection at the Holman Correctional Facility in Alabama.
While many inmates sit on death row for a number of years while appeals grind through the criminal justice system in attempts to save their lives, few spend over three decades in this position. Tommy Arthur was called the ‘Houdini of death row’ by Janette Grantham, state director of the Victims of Crime and Leniency (VOCAL) reports Alabama media, for his repeated escapes from execution.
“Enough is enough. Justice is long past due. Arthur chose his fate.”
The story of Tommy Arthur is littered with violence and crime. At the time he was convicted of murder-for-hire in 1983 he was already serving a life sentence for another murder he committed in 1977. He was on work release from prison in February 1982 when he murdered his second victim.
On 11 March 1977, Tommy Arthur was arrested for the murder of Eloise West, his common-law wife’s sister and assault with intent to murder for her cousin Charlotte Harbin. Both women had been shot at a mobile home supply park in Bear Creek, Alabama with early reports suggesting Arthur had shot them because they would not contact his common-law wife Shirley Dodd for him. At his trial, Arthur changed his plea from not guilty by reason of insanity to guilty and he was sentenced to life in prison.
Five years later in 1982, Arthur was working within a Decatur Community Work Center under the Alabama Department of Corrections. This meant Arthur was participating in work release programs, giving him time out of his prison cell and carrying out community work in the local areas. It was during this time Arthur rekindled a relationship with Judy Wicker and together they plotted to murder Judy’s husband, 35-year-old Troy Wicker for his life insurance money. The agreement made between the pair was that Tommy Arthur would kill Troy Wicker at his home and receive a payment of $10,000 from Judy for his efforts.
When Muscle Shoals Police Department received a call on 1 February 1982 that there had been an incident at the Wicker’s home, they arrived at the scene to find Judy Wicker injured on the floor in the front room and Troy Wicker dead in the bedroom from a gunshot wound through his right eye. Judy Wicker, after receiving medical treatment, was able to give police her version of events. She told them she had returned home from a trip out that morning and had found an intruder inside her house, who had attacked and raped her before shooting her husband dead and fleeing scene.
“The victim, Troy Wicker, was killed as he lay sleeping in his own bed in his own home. The single shot to his right eye was fired from a small caliber weapon at a relatively close distance, somewhere in the range of 16 to 24 inches.”
The shooting of Troy Wicker was very similar to the shooting death of Eloise West with both victims shot through their right eye-raising suspicions around Tommy Arthur. When large amounts of money had been found in the possession of Arthur and links between him and Judy Wicker were established along with the fact that Arthur did not report for his work-release job on the day of the murder, police soon felt they had a strong case for a joint murder plot between Wicker and Arthur. Judy Wicker was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder on 10 October 1982 and received a life sentence.
Tommy Arthur was charged with murder and at his trial in early 1983, Judy Wicker turned against him, testifying for the prosecution and telling the court it was Tommy Arthur who killed her husband. Tommy Arthur was convicted of the murder of Troy Wicker on 19 February 1983 and sentenced to death one month later. Judy’s testimony against Arthur secured her a reduced prison sentence and she was released from prison after 10 years.
Arthur’s death sentence kickstarted a long process of appeals which saw his 1983 conviction overturned and a second trial took place where he was once again found guilty and sentenced to death in May 1987. This process repeated itself in December 1991, where after a successful appeal of his 1987 murder conviction he faced a third trial for the murder of Troy Wicker and was found guilty for a third time. His death sentence this time remained in place and sent him into a grim cycle of execution dates going down to the final minutes before a reprieve coming through and saving him.
The volunteer legal team working on his behalf focused mainly on the issues surrounding the method of execution and whether it was cruel, drawing on the debates in recent years over the use of the drug protocols for lethal injection executions. They have also challenged his conviction for the murder of Troy Wicker, pointing to a lack of forensic evidence tying Tommy Arthur to the crime. They have been pushing for the forensic evidence collected from the crime scene to be tested with the latest DNA technology in the hope the results would clear Arthur from involvement, but all their requests were unsuccessful.
In May this year, Tommy Arthur spoke with the Guardian newspaper days before his execution, telling of his torment over the last 16 years. He told of the impact on his family, coming to multiple execution appointments believing he was about to die. “The stress of her father about to be killed was so traumatic it damaged her heart, she almost lost her business and home,” he said of his daughter. After the last execution date, he said he told her not to come to anymore.
While Arthur pleaded guilty to the 1977 murder of Eloise West, he has always denied killing Troy Wicker, the husband of the woman he was in a relationship with and the crime which got him the death sentence. He claimed Judy Wicker changed her story from an unknown intruder who attacked her before killing her husband to pointing the finger at him only after she was offered a deal which would see her released from her prison sentence early. Tommy Arthur also gave an interview to Mother Jones in the days before he was executed. He told them “I am totally innocent and DNA could prove it”.
“It’s the same thing every time. Everyone has a fear of dying…but the state of Alabama is going to – and I don’t use this world lightly – murder me for something I didn’t do.” – Tommy Arthur
Tommy Arthur was 75-years-old at the time he was executed. His final words, “I’m sorry I failed you as a father. I love you more than anything on Earth,” were directed to his eldest daughter who despite earlier agreements did attend and watched alongside his attorney as Tommy Arthur was put to death. After 34 years on death row, Tommy Arthur’s sentence was carried out. For the family of Troy Wicker who lost his life 35 years ago in a callous and cold murder involving his own wife, the end of Arthur’s relentless appeals and reprieves mean they have finally received justice.