Arthur's fate can be tied to DNA tests
Sunday, July 27, 2008
BY HANS SHERRER
We like to think the legal system gets it right when a person is convicted of murder and sentenced to prison or death. However, all human systems are fallible. That is why there are more than 675 documented cases nationally of a person's exoneration after being convicted of murder, and 258 of those people were sentenced to death. (These cases are documented in the Innocents Database, http://forejustice.org/search_idb.htm, and 11 of these are Alabama cases.)
Thomas Arthur is on Alabama's Death Row and scheduled to be executed Thursday. However, the circumstances of his 1991 murder conviction and death sentence strongly suggest his case is one in which the system did not get it right. Several key issues illustrate this:
The only direct evidence placing Arthur, a Caucasian, at the crime scene was the testimony of Judy Wicker, the wife of the murdered man. However, Wicker told police investigators at the crime scene, and she testified at her trial for her husband's murder that she was raped by the black intruder who killed her husband. After almost 10 years of imprisonment, she recanted by testifying at Arthur's 1991 trial that she hired him to commit the murder. Wicker was promptly paroled from her life sentence after testifying.
The trial judge denied the defense's request for forensic testing of crime scene evidence. There are DNA techniques now available to analyze the evidence that includes Judy Wicker's clothing and rape kit, a wig and hair samples, vacuum sweepings from the Wicker home, a pillow case, hair samples from a shoe, blood, bullet cartridges and a bullet. DNA testing could both exclude Arthur as the source of DNA on the evidence, and identify the person or persons it came from.
Arthur's trial attorney did not interview witnesses who could have corroborated his alibi. Eleven years after Arthur's trial, his pro bono lawyers obtained affidavits from two credible alibi witnesses who swore that on the morning of Troy Wicker's murder, they saw and talked with Arthur in Decatur, about an hour from the Muscle Shoals crime scene. The exculpatory evidence provided by those alibi witnesses has never been subjected to examination in any state or federal court proceeding.
Arthur's court-appointed attorney was entrusted with the responsibility to provide effective representation during his capital murder trial. To accomplish his crucial responsibilities in the most complex type of criminal case a lawyer can undertake, Arthur's counsel was paid the princely sum of $1,000.
No competent lawyer will represent a person in a contested divorce involving property and children for that amount. We submit that on its face, $1,000 is inadequate for Arthur's trial counsel to have provided him with effective representation.
These are only four of many compelling issues in Arthur's case. However, they illustrate it is reasonable to doubt the correctness of his conviction. DNA testing of the evidence could provide new evidence conclusively excluding Arthur's presence at the crime scene, and that a black male was present. Those new facts would prove Wicker's testimony at Arthur's trial was false, they would support the alibi witnesses who swore Arthur was in Decatur at the time of the murder, and they would confirm that Arthur's trial counsel provided ineffective representation. The essence of this brief analysis is that Arthur's actual innocence of Troy Wicker's murder can be established, but the trigger to do that is DNA testing of the crime scene evidence.
Arthur asserts his innocence of Wicker's murder, there is no physical evidence tying him to the crime scene, and Judy Wicker supported his innocence claim until she had a choice few people could resist - die in prison or walk out of prison by identifying Arthur as the perpetrator.
The circumstances of Arthur's conviction are similar to those present in known cases of false conviction. That Arthur's conviction has not been corrected can be attributed to the fact that procedural technicalities have prevented the merits of his post-conviction challenges to his conviction from being reviewed by any state or federal court.
Alabama Gov. Bob Riley has the authority to order DNA testing of the evidence in Arthur's case. As Attorney General, Troy King clearly stated in a Feb. 16, 2006, brief filed with the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals: "If the governor wants DNA testing, the governor gets DNA testing." However, Riley has steadfastly refused to order DNA testing, which has proved its value by exonerating 62 people convicted of murder, 20 of whom were sentenced to death.
No person should be executed because their conviction is a mistake. The interests of justice do nothing less than mandate Riley issue a stay of Arthur's scheduled execution and order DNA testing of all available crime-related evidence.
Hans Sherrer is president of the Justice Institute and publisher of Justice: Denied, the magazine for the wrongly convicted. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Web site: justicedenied.org.
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