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 The Alabama Supreme Court stayed Thomas Arthur’s execution on Wednesday, July 30, after another inmate confessed to the murder for which Mr. Arthur was convicted.  Mr. Arthur, 66, has been in prison 26 years.  He was scheduled to die at Holman Prison on Thursday. 

The execution was stayed after Bobby Ray Gilbert, now 43 and serving life without parole at Alabama’s St. Claire prison, confessed to the murder.  Mr. Arthur has maintained his innocence for more than a quarter-century. 

Thomas Arthur was convicted of murdering Troy Wicker, Jr. on February 1, 1982.  The case has the best elements of a Grisham novel: murder for hire, no eyewitnesses, lost evidence, perjured testimony, shoddy police work, multiple people with incentives to lie, abrogation of due process, inept legal representation … and an indigent parolee, Tommy Arthur. 

The Alabama Supreme Court was right to stay the execution, although State Attorney General Troy King and many Alabamians disagreed.  Mr. King said he was “disappointed” that the execution was stayed, because the victim’s family has already waited too long for ‘justice.’  He called it a “serious setback” for the prosecution.   

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Oh, really?  How can any prosecutor see the execution of a possibly innocent man as a setback?  Justice and morality are not set back by sparing the life a person whose guilt is in question.  And, morality notwithstanding, the sentence was not commuted; the punishment was only stayed.  It can be reinstated. 

“The crimes against Troy Wicker’s family continue to compound,” Mr. King said.  Mr. King did not say whether he includes Mrs. Wicker among those family members.  She paid $10,000 to someone -- she says it was Thomas Arthur -- to have her husband killed in an insurance scheme. 

“There is a good chance he [Thomas Arthur] is going to escape his sentence before all is said and done.”  But if Mr. Arthur’s guilt is not affirmed, he should have no sentence to escape from.  Further, it is not Mr. Arthur’s job to prove himself innocent; it is up to the state to prove once again, in the face of Mr. Gilbert’s late confession, that he is guilty. 

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The Montgomery Advertiser noted that Mr. King’s “support for capital punishment sometimes appears to go beyond the reasonable and into the realm of zealotry.” 

That’s putting it mildly.  Such sentiments go beyond mere zealotry and well into the realm of fanaticism.  They are rooted not in any sense of justice but in pure and primitive blood lust.   

Would the prosecutor choose to kill an innocent man rather that deal with the tarnished image, potential liability, or general inconvenience that might accompany this last-minute discovery? Would the people prefer that someone, anyone, be killed just to avenge Mr. Wicker’s murder?   

Apparently they would.  And if Mr. Gilbert’s confession is shown to be valid, those people will be frustrated.  Mr. Gilbert was a juvenile at the time of the murder and will not face execution if he is found guilty. 

The Alabama Supreme Court, in its wisdom, decided that Mr. Gilbert’s confession had enough credibility to warrant a hearing.  That’s good although it may be worrisome to Mr. King.  Yet if there is a reasonable chance that someone other than Mr. Arthur committed the crimes for which he was scheduled to die, then the prosecutor and the state must deal with that plausible if highly inconvenient fact. 

Neither criminal justice statutes nor prosecutorial wishes define “justice” in a civilized society; they merely bring that concept to life.  People’s senses of equity, decency and fairness define justice.  We cannot allow that definition to extend to blood lust in 21st century America.

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Rick Wise is an industrial psychologist and retired management consultant. For 15 years, he was managing director of ValueNet International, Inc. Before starting ValueNet, Rick was director, corporate training and, later, director, corporate (more...)

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