Tommy Arthur, who was first sentenced to death in 1983, has long imagined what could be his end: time in a so-called death cell, a choice of a last meal, the final telephone calls and then a lethal injection.
That end could come Thursday, his eighth execution date in a case that has spanned the tenures of eight Alabama governors, starting with George Wallace. If it does, it will conclude a legal odyssey that quietly became, for death penalty supporters and critics alike, a symbol of the troubles of the capital punishment system in the United States.
“It’s one of those cases in which nobody is happy,” said Robert Dunham, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a research group that has voiced concerns about the application of capital punishment.
“People who simply want the execution are unhappy because of the passage of time,” he said. “People who oppose the death penalty are unhappy because they don’t want Tommy Arthur executed. People who want fairness are unhappy because, despite the length of time this case has been in the courts, the process has never been fair.”
In Alabama, where 58 people have been put to death since Mr. Arthur was sentenced for the 1982 murder of Troy Wicker, the most pressing issue these days seems to be how long it takes to carry out capital sentences. If Mr. Arthur, 75, is executed on Thursday, his death will come one week after the Legislature gave final approval to a plan to reduce the length of appeals in capital cases.
“Men don’t cry, but I have,” Mr. Arthur, whose case was unaffected by the measure, said in a telephone interview from the prison that houses Alabama’s execution chamber. “I’m scared to death right now.”
Mr. Arthur confessed to one murder but was given a death sentence for a second that he insists he did not commit. In regards to the latter, the state authorities contend that Mr. Wicker’s wife, Judy, hired Mr. Arthur, her lover, to carry out the killing so she could collect an insurance payout. Ms. Wicker, who was found guilty and spent about a decade in prison before being released on parole, ultimately testified against Mr. Arthur, who was on work release from a life sentence for another killing when Mr. Wicker was murdered. (A woman who answered the phone at a number connected to Ms. Wicker hung up on a reporter.)
Near the end of a trial in the early 1990s, Mr. Arthur proclaimed his innocence but asked for a death sentence that he said would allow him greater opportunities for appeal.
“I will not be executed,” Mr. Arthur said, according to a transcript of the proceedings. “I’m totally positive of that. I wouldn’t dare ask you for it if I thought for a minute that I would be executed.”
He had already won two new trials by then. In the years that followed, Mr. Arthur’s case began to stand out to some scholars and lawyers because he so frequently staved off scheduled executions.
Mr. Arthur, whose lawyers have not raised intellectual disability or mental health claims, maintained his innocence and sought new forensic testing of evidence. He argued his sentence was unconstitutional and that his claims of ineffective counsel were never fully considered. He raised questions about Alabama’s execution methods, including a challenge to a lethal injection drug, midazolam.
Another prisoner once admitted to Mr. Wicker’s murder, but a judge found that Mr. Arthur and the inmate had “engaged in an attempt to defraud” the court with a false confession.
A defense lawyer for Mr. Arthur, Suhana S. Han, said that litigation had still not led to a full airing of the facts and rulings on the merits of Mr. Arthur’s claims of innocence. Instead, Mr. Arthur’s supporters see a government increasingly desperate to put a man to death.
“I think we should all be very concerned that a state is willing to exact the ultimate punishment of death without affording an inmate every fair opportunity to prove his innocence,” said Ms. Han, a partner with the New York firm Sullivan & Cromwell, which is representing Mr. Arthur pro bono. “They have fought us every which way while we’ve tried to get at the truth.”
State officials regard Mr. Arthur as someone who will do anything to avoid his death sentence.
“I think there’s just an attitude by the other side to basically file anything that they can whether it has any merit or not,” said Clay Crenshaw, chief deputy attorney general and a former leader of his office’s capital litigation division. “I think he and his lawyers have successfully manipulated the system.”
Mr. Crenshaw said Mr. Arthur had received more stays of execution than any other Alabama prisoner in memory.
The matter of whether seemingly ceaseless capital cases are constitutionally problematic has never been settled by the United States Supreme Court, but justices have sometimes betrayed fears about the length of time that can pass between sentencing and execution. In a 2011 case from Florida involving a man who had been awaiting execution for 33 years, Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote that he had “little doubt about the cruelty of so long a period of incarceration under sentence of death.”
But Justice Breyer has sometimes been a solitary voice on matters of capital punishment.
Alabama has moved to limit the risk of protracted cases in the future, and on Friday, Gov. Kay Ivey is scheduled to sign a measure requiring capital defendants to pursue their direct and post-conviction appeals simultaneously in the state’s courts. Under existing law, defendants have been allowed to bring a new appeal after an earlier effort failed.
The Alabama attorney general, Steven T. Marshall, said the proposed changes, similar to provisions already in force in at least four other states, would benefit people affected by capital crimes without trampling on constitutional rights.
“This is victim-driven for us,” Mr. Marshall said. “We’ve heard the stories. We’ve seen the anguish. Victims do not sense, in a capital setting, that their voices are heard fully. This is an opportunity for us as a state to be able to say that we’re going to allow defendants to have their fair opportunity to be heard in court for their claims to be evaluated, but we’re going to do it in a timely way.”
But Mr. Dunham of the Death Penalty Information Center, who noted that 60 percent of death row exonerations since 2012 involved cases at least 20 years old, suggested that quickening the pace to the death chamber would very likely lead to more executions of innocent people. In 2015, Alabama released an innocent man, Anthony Ray Hinton, after he spent almost 30 years on death row; the state had spent years resisting demands that investigators conduct new tests on an alleged murder weapon.
“This is not about having more efficient judicial review,” Mr. Dunham said. “This is about expediting executions at the expense of fairness and accuracy.”
The Arthur case only lurked in the background of the legislative debate, but Mr. Marshall, a local prosecutor until February, acknowledged that Mr. Arthur’s history had long attracted attention.
“It’s the example of how the system has failed victims, and how he’s manipulated, through various filings, the court system to delay what should have occurred long ago,” Mr. Marshall said.
Mr. Arthur is unbothered by his reputation. Yet days before his scheduled execution, he allowed that his case might be near its end.
“Am I afraid?” Mr. Arthur said. “Well, I’m terrified, but there’s nothing I can do about it. All I can do is just hope, and I think my attorneys have some things working, and I hope some of them get some traction.”