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Last Updated: Sunday, 21 October 2007, 11:10 GMT 12:10 UK
Alabama's fierce death row battle
By Matt Wells
BBC News, Alabama

Alabama death row inmate Thomas Arthur
Thomas Arthur came within hours of being executed last month
If most politicians in Alabama had their way, Tommy Arthur would have been executed more than 20 years ago.

The 65-year-old, whose death sentence was overturned twice before a third jury convicted him in the early 1990s, is alive on the state's death row - but only just.

Although no physical evidence placed him at the scene, he was convicted of shooting Troy Wicker in his bed after being paid $10,000 by the victim's wife, with whom he had had an affair.

The twists and turns of the case, and the tangled relationships involved, are worthy of a grim detective novel. But ultimately the jury, and state law, dictated Arthur should die.

He missed his last appointment with a lethal-injection syringe by only a few hours at the end of last month.

Alabama's governor has made it clear he wants Arthur to die as soon as possible, and that the current furore over the chemicals used to deliver the ultimate punishment is an annoying distraction.

Although many death penalty abolitionists are viewing the US Supreme Court's decision to review the constitutionality of the existing chemical cocktail with hope, the fact is that states like Alabama guard their rights very carefully - and few more so than the right to execution.

'I want justice'

The founder of Alabama victims' rights group VOCAL (Victims of Crime and Leniency), Miriam Shenane, is more than just irritated by Arthur's latest stay of execution.

Putting them to death, even with the electric chair, is not nearly as horrible as what they did to my daughter
Miriam Shenane
Victims of Crime and Leniency

She says the governor has traumatised the victim's family, and others all over the state.

"What do we have to do? Put a mask over them and just take away their oxygen? I want justice," she said, in her office in the state capital, Montgomery.

The white walls are covered in photographs of "angels" - the word she uses to describe all the innocent people who have been murdered in Alabama.

Her own daughter was raped and murdered by three men, one of whom has been executed.

She would feel much better if the other two followed him. "Putting them to death, even with the electric chair, is not nearly as horrible as what they did to my daughter."

'Murder my father'

Tommy Arthur's daughter, Sherrie Arthur Stone, was still a teenager when her father was first sentenced to death.

Sherrie Arthur Stone
Sherrie Arthur Stone believes DNA evidence would clear her father

For years, she thought he was probably guilty, and deserved the jail time he spent earlier in his life.

But now she is convinced of his innocence, fuelled largely by her disillusionment with a judicial system she views as callous and incompetent in Alabama.

Articulate and earnest, but clearly scarred by years of legal and emotional battle, she stopped living in the state a long time ago.

"I was basically told by investigators, if I didn't leave the state, I'd be found dead on a back road," she told the BBC.

"They clearly want to murder my father, which is what this is going to be. It's not going to be an execution, it's going to be a murder."

Amnesty International supports her argument that DNA testing of the evidence - which has yet to take place - could exonerate Arthur.

Tool of justice

The state is equally adamant that they will not allow that to happen - even if Arthur's family pays for the DNA testing.

Clay Crenshaw, Alabama deputy attorney general
Clay Crenshaw believes there have been no miscarriages of justice

"There have been three federal judges now... they have all agreed that the results of DNA testing would not show that Arthur is innocent," said Clay Crenshaw, Alabama's deputy attorney general in charge of capital cases.

It might strike many as a paradox, but Mr Crenshaw believes that in a culture that values human life above all, the right to take that life away is an essential tool of justice.

"The reason to have the death penalty is to keep those people who commit these violent acts off of the street, and hopefully prevent other people from committing those type of crimes," he added.

He believes that the unofficial moratorium on executions in many states over the lethal injection issue is not the beginning of the end for the death penalty in states like Alabama.

"To me it appears the opposite is happening," he said, arguing that states that make use of the death penalty are determined to cling on to it by whatever means necessary.

Historic injustice

Less than a mile from the rather shabby state government buildings in downtown Montgomery is the office of the Equal Justice Initiative, which is home to a clutch of lawyers who are determined to close death row down.

Death chamber in Huntsville, Texas
Some death penalty critics say it is tied to a history of racial injustice

Executive director Bryan Stevenson says the entire prosecutorial system in his home state is riddled with incompetence and not-so-latent racism, that perpetuates an historic injustice between black and white in the entire Deep South.

Sitting on top of that system is the death penalty, he says.

"It's impossible to disconnect that history from this punishment," says the young black professor, who teaches for part of the week in New York.

"We've had, in Alabama, 25 cases reversed after proving intentional racial discrimination in jury selection... We have 19 appellate court judges in Alabama, all of whom are white."

Mr Crenshaw denies all of the charges levelled at the system he represents, and believes that no miscarriages of justice have occurred in any of the state's death row cases.

Mr Stephenson says politicians and officials are in denial - and that there is a larger price to pay.

"Alabama wants to be the place where every European business comes to invest, and build their companies and factories, but we have an horrific human rights record."

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23 Aug 07 |  Americas

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