Alabama executes man for 1982 murder-for-hire

An inmate once called the "Houdini" of Alabama's death row for escaping seven past execution dates through legal challenges was put to death early Friday for a 1982 murder-for-hire shooting.

Tommy Arthur, 75, was pronounced dead at 12:15 a.m. CDT Friday following a lethal injection administered at a southwest Alabama prison, authorities said. Arthur was convicted of killing riverboat engineer Troy Wicker, who was fatally shot as he slept in his bed in the north Alabama city of Muscle Shoals.

"Thirty-four years after he was first sentenced to death ... Thomas Arthur's protracted attempt to escape justice is finally at an end," Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall said in a statement. "Most importantly, tonight, the family of Troy Wicker can begin the long-delayed process of recovery from a painful loss."

In his final statement, Arthur appeared to cry and got choked up as he said he wanted to apologize to his four children and said each of their names. "I'm sorry I failed you as a father. I love you more than anything on earth," Arthur said. He waved his fingers up in the direction of his daughters, who watched from a witness room.

Wicker's two sons witnessed the execution but did not make a statement to the media.

Arthur's lawyers filed a flurry of last-minute appeals in a bid to halt the execution, but the U.S. Supreme Court opened the way for the execution to proceed shortly before 11 p.m. Thursday. The state prison system began administering the lethal injection drugs around 11:50 p.m. before the death warrant expired at midnight. He was not pronounced dead until after midnight.

Wicker's wife, Judy, initially told police she came home and was raped by a black man who shot and killed her husband. After her conviction, she changed her story and testified she had discussed killing her husband with Arthur, who came to the house in makeup and an Afro-style wig and shot her husband. She said she paid him $10,000. 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.

His first two convictions in the Wicker case were overturned, but the third one was not. Arthur asked jurors to give him the death penalty. The decision was strategic, he said, to open up more avenues of appeal.

The state set seven execution dates for Arthur between 2001 and 2016. All were delayed as a pro bono legal team fought his sentence. In 2016, Arthur came especially close to the death chamber.

In a telephone interview Monday, Arthur maintained his innocence but acknowledged that his chance of another stay was diminishing.

"I'm terrified, but there's nothing I can do," Arthur told The Associated Press.

Janette Grantham, director of the Victims of Crime and Leniency, called the years of execution delays exceedingly painful for the family of Troy Wicker to bear.

Earlier, Arthur's attorneys had asked the U.S. Supreme Court to halt the execution. The lawyers have argued that the opening sedative in Alabama's execution protocol — midazolam — wouldn't properly anesthetize him before he's injected with other drugs to stop his heart and lungs. 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.

Both the state of Alabama and Arthur's lawyers have pointed to his case as an example of what they see wrong in death penalty cases.

Arthur's lawyer said the state had sought DNA testing on hairs collected at the crime scene.

The state attorney general said Arthur used perpetual litigation to avoid the death sentence for years.