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The 'Agonizing' Process Of Going Through Stays Of Execution


Tommy Arthur was put to death by the state of Alabama last week after his execution had been stayed seven times over the years. He pleaded guilty to the murder of his sister-in-law, Eloise West, in the 1970s and was on work release in 1982 when a man named Troy Wicker was shot to death in his bed in Muscle Shoals, Ala. Prosecutors said that Tommy Arthur was sleeping with Judy Wicker and agreed to shoot her husband for $10,000. Tommy Arthur always said he was innocent. He was convicted and sentenced to death seven times. His execution was scheduled, then stayed by appeals, until he was put to death on May 25.

His daughter, Sherrie Stone, was at his execution, and she joins us now from member station WUSF in Tampa, Fla. Ms. Stone thanks so much for being with us.

SHERRIE STONE: You're welcome.

SIMON: I gather you were a teenager when your father was arrested.

STONE: Yes, 15 years old.

SIMON: Well, what was he - what was he like as a father?

STONE: It was pretty bad, actually, pretty violent, alcohol, lots of abuse in the home towards our stepmother, mothers, us. It was pretty bad.

SIMON: Yeah. So a number of years ago, I gather, you decided to look in to your father's case. What did you find?

STONE: Well, that's a lot. We're, you know, covering 40 years of stuff. But when I was 15, he was arrested. Then he got out on work release and seemed to have, you know, changed and was doing really well. Then when he was arrested the second time, my first instinct was he was guilty, no doubt. And then about 15 years ago, I started really looking into the case, and what I found was astounding. I could not find the evidence to prove him guilty. And I started digging and digging, and it really consumed me for many years.

SIMON: Well, there were no eyewitnesses, no DNA test.

STONE: It didn't exist back then. DNA testing did not exist. There was plenty of evidence, but none of it connects him to this crime. There's no physical evidence. Fingerprints that were there do not match him. There were no eyewitnesses. Now, there is physical evidence available to be DNA tested and has never been done so.

SIMON: We can't obviously relitigate the case and...

STONE: No, a little too late for that.

SIMON: I do want to ask you about what the effect of those seven stays were because I gather you went to the prison almost every time.

STONE: It's something that you really can't put into words other than just agonizing. You'd get there. You prepare for it. You make funeral arrangements. You do the obituary. You go through all the stages as if someone has died, and then they don't. And, you know, I'm not the only one that's going through that. The victim's family goes through this as well. You do get angry, you know, about a lot of things. But, you know, there's not a whole lot you can really do about it except speak about it and hopefully make some type of change in some kind of way. I'd like to see mandatory DNA testing and...

SIMON: You've called for that to be done, yeah.

STONE: Yeah. I mean, I'd like to be involved in it. But the death penalty itself really doesn't serve a lot of purpose. I - publicly, over 40 years, never took a stance over whether I was for it or against it. But if we are going to continue with it, then we need to - we need to make some changes in the legal procedures that are currently in place.

SIMON: You were there at the end, I gather.

STONE: I was. I witnessed the execution, and it did not go down the way the state-selected witnesses said. I think everyone in that room wanted him, including the attorneys, wanted him to just drift off peacefully. But I definitely knew something was wrong. The first drug that was administered did not make him unconscious. He sat straight up twice and said, my eyes are burning, and he was jerking left to right. And I said, something's wrong. And inside the chamber, one person did see something was wrong and went over, pinched him, said his name. By this time, he's laying back. He's breathing very heavy, very irregular. His hands go up into a curled position. And what is supposed to take under 10 minutes took 30 minutes. And when the curtains closed, I really wasn't sure if he was dead or not because the hands had never relaxed.

SIMON: You've always, near as I can tell, spoken with such understanding for the Wicker family. I wonder if you've had any personal encounters with them.

STONE: I had met Judy many years ago, but, you know, the children and the family, no, I have not. They were at the execution, but we were seated in different rooms. But they've expressed their - they felt sorry for me as well. And I have the deepest sympathy, and I really, really sincerely hope that the execution allows them some sort of peace and closure because I know how much, as a family member, no matter which side you're on, that's something that is desired more than anything. You just want that closure.

SIMON: Sherrie Stone in Tampa, Fla., thank you so much for speaking with us.

STONE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.