Thomas Arthur
Thomas Arthur
The nation's latest death penalty debacle makes Gov. John Kitzhaber's Oregon execution moratorium look wise indeed.

Thomas Arthur, slated to die by lethal injection this spring at an Alabama state prison, has been convicted in three trials for the 1982 murder of Troy Wicker. Arthur must be guilty, right?

But, as in all death penalty cases, the story contains ambiguities. A key witness recanted and then reinstated her testimony. Another man admitted committing the murder. Most shocking, Alabama will not analyze DNA evidence found at the crime scene and will not allow Arthur's lawyers to test it at their own expense. Alabama can nix the lab work because five members of the U.S. Supreme Court in 2009 denied similar DNA testing to a potentially innocent convict in Alaska.

It appears Alabama is more interesting in killing Arthur than in finding the truth, even at no expense.   

Arthur's case is frustrating not because it's so unusual, but because the problems involved are so common. The attorneys Alabama appointed to represent him at the three trials had never tried a capital murder case before and the state capped their public-paid fees at $1,000. Arthur has documents proving that his attorney's had told him they were not prepared or qualified to defend him. Arthur also has shown he was not able to communicate with the lawyers.  

Some jury members say that if they had been allowed to view all of the evidence, they would not have found Arthur guilty. Because of a singular Alabama law, Arthur missed an appeal deadline and much of the new evidence discovered has not been allowed.   

These kinds of injustices would be heinous if rare. But they happen all the time. That's part of the reason that governors have granted clemency to 270 U.S. death row inmates since 1976.

Oregon has played a role. Overturning our state's highest court, the U.S. Supreme Court in 2006 refused to let death row inmate Randy Guzek introduce newly discovered and possibly exculpatory evidence during the sentencing phase.

We ought not be killing people to show that committing murder is wrong. That bankrupts human reason. But at least our system should be human enough so that we turn every stone, even at the last moment.