From time to time I write on this blog under the heading “Death Penalty Death
Watch,” to highlight news suggesting that capital punishment is on the decline
in this country — and stories demonstrating why it should be. This entry, I’m
sorry to report, falls firmly in the 2nd category.
Last Wednesday, Alabama scheduled the execution of Thomas Arthur for March 29.
I object to the death penalty under all circumstances, but Mr. Arthur’s case is
particularly troubling, because it’s quite possible that he’s innocent.
Mr. Arthur has been on death row since 1982 for the murder of Troy Wicker. He
was not an upstanding citizen. At the time of the murder, Mr. Arthur was an
inmate at the Decatur Work Release Center serving a sentence for a previous
conviction for 2nd-degree murder. But his character shouldn’t distract us from
the facts: No physical evidence linked him to the murder; no murder weapon was
found; another man, Bobby Ray Gilbert, confessed to the crime under oath.
DNA testing of evidence in 2009 failed to place Mr. Gilbert at the scene, and a
Jefferson County Circuit Court judge ruled that he had lied. This logic seems
flimsy. Remember, there’s no DNA evidence proving that Mr. Arthur committed the
Mr. Arthur has requested advanced DNA testing of a wig worn by the killer,
which could help establish his innocence (or his guilt, for that matter). The
Alabama authorities have so far opposed additional testing—despite the fact
that Mr. Arthur’s counsel has offered to pay for it and that it could be
completed before his execution date.
False confessions are not unheard of. It’s possible that Mr. Arthur really did
kill Mr. Wicker. But there’s also ample room for doubt.
In 2008, a United Nations Human Rights Council report on “extrajudicial,
summary or arbitrary executions” stated that Alabama systematically rejects
“concerns that basic international standards are being violated” and that
government officials “seem strikingly indifferent to the risk of executing
innocent people.” Is the state willing to take the risk of proving the UN
(source: Andrew Rosenthal, New York Times blog)