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Dubbed 'Houdini' for escaping execution 7 times, Alabama man put to death for 1982 murder-for-hire

Thomas Arthur is seen in a police photo released May 23, 2017 by the Alabama Department of Corrections in Montgomery, Alabama, U.S. Courtesy of Alabama Department of Corrections/Handout via REUTERS

An Alabama prisoner nicknamed the "Houdini" of death row for dodging execution seven times has been put to death for fatally shooting his lover's husband in a 1982 murder-for-hire scheme.

Thomas Arthur, 75, was pronounced dead at 12:15 a.m. Friday Central time after authorities injected him with a lethal drug cocktail at the Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Ala., the Associated Press reported.

In his final statement, Arthur choked back tears as he apologized to his four children, according to the Associated Press.

"I'm sorry I failed you as a father," he said. "I love you more than anything on Earth."

Arthur was convicted of killing Troy Wicker, a riverboat engineer from Muscle Shoals, Ala., in exchange for payment from Wicker's wife. Arthur maintained his innocence, and his lawyers have argued there is no physical evidence linking him to the man's death.

Throughout the evening Thursday, there was a possibility that Arthur would escape yet another execution date. Arthur was initially scheduled to be put to death at 6 p.m., but the U.S. Supreme Court issued a temporary stay while it considered last-minute appeals from his defense team.

The court lifted the stay around 11 p.m., about an hour before Arthur's death warrant was set to expire.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented, saying she was concerned about the state's use of the controversial drug midazolam, which has been blamed for unusually long executions and for causing prisoners "excruciating pain." She also said she disagreed with the state's decision to deny phone access to Arthur's attorneys during the lethal injection.

"The State's refusal serves only to frustrate any effort by Arthur's attorneys to petition the courts in the event of yet another botched execution," Sotomayor wrote. "Its action means that when Thomas Arthur enters the execution chamber tonight, he will leave his constitutional rights at the door."

Authorities began injecting Arthur at 11:50 p.m. He was dead about 25 minutes later without complications, officials said.

"It went exactly according to protocol," Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn told Al.com.

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

In February 1982, authorities found Wicker dead in his bed with a gunshot wound to his right eye. At the time, Arthur had been participating in a work-release program while serving a life sentence for the 1977 murder of his sister-in-law. During his time outside prison for work, he started having an affair with Wicker's wife, Judy Wicker.

On the day of the murder, Judy Wicker told police that a black man had raped her and fatally shot her husband. Investigators didn't believe her. Shortly after, she was charged with murder-for-hire, and Arthur was charged with aggravated murder.

Wicker later recanted. In multiple trials, she testified that Arthur came to her house dressed in an Afro wig and black face paint and shot her husband as he lay asleep. She said she paid Arthur $10,000 for the hit job after collecting her husband's $90,000 insurance policy, as the Montgomery Advertiser has documented in detail.

Arthur insisted he was innocent. His attorneys argued there was no DNA evidence or fingerprints recovered from the scene that implicated him in the killing. They also said advanced DNA testing, if conducted, could point to another suspect.

Jurors convicted Arthur twice, but both verdicts were overturned on appeal. In 1991, he was convicted a third time. That verdict was upheld. Wicker was convicted separately for her role in the murder and served 10 years of a life sentence.

At sentencing, Arthur requested the death penalty, saying it would offer him more opportunities to appeal. The strategy worked. Between 2001 and 2016, seven of Arthur's execution dates were delayed as his defense team filed dozens of legal challenges in federal court.

"Neither a fingerprint nor a weapon, nor any other physical evidence, connects Thomas Arthur to the murder of Troy Wicker," his lead attorney, Suhana Han, told the Los Angeles Times in a statement before his execution. "If the state executes Mr. Arthur on May 25 as planned, he will die without ever having had a meaningful opportunity to prove his innocence - an outcome that is inexcusable in a civilized society."

After Arthur was put to death, his 55-year-old daughter, Sherrie Stone, called for mandatory DNA testing on all crime scene evidence in death penalty cases. She said in a statement that she has wavered over the years about her father's guilt or innocence.

"Now," she said, "I will never know the truth."

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