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In the Bible Belt, Christmas Isn’t Coming to Death Row

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When it comes to the death penalty, guilt or innocence shouldn’t really matter to Christians.  

NASHVILLE — Until August, Tennessee had not put a prisoner to death in nearly a decade. Last Thursday, it performed its third execution in four months.
This was not a surprising turn of events. In each case, recourse to the courts had been exhausted. In each case Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican, declined to intervene, though there were many reasons to justify intervening. Billy Ray Irick suffered from psychotic breaks that raised profound doubts about his ability to distinguish right from wrong. Edmund Zagorksi’s behavior in prison was so exemplary that even the warden pleaded for his life. David Earl Miller also suffered from mental illness and was a survivor of child abuse so horrific that he tried to kill himself when he was 6 years old.
Questions about the humanity of Tennessee’s lethal-injection protocol were so pervasive following the execution of Mr. Irick that both Mr. Zagorski and M…

Lethal injection drug puts corrections employees at risk | Opinion

Midazolam
Many Tennesseans followed the recent trial regarding the new lethal injection protocol including the sedative midazolam, but few people realize the immense risk of harm to corrections officials if an execution does not go as planned.  

Midazolam has been used in disturbing executions in seven states. Eyewitnesses to those executions testified in the recent trial that the prisoners moaned, choked, gasped, shook, clenched their jaw, and reopened their eyes after the consciousness check.

One Arizona prisoner gulped and gasped for nearly two hours during a midazolam execution.  

If Tennessee executes with midazolam, I am very concerned about the increased likelihood of causing unnecessary and damaging trauma to our hard working and professional corrections staff. 

As the former commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Correction, I can attest that Tennessee’s corrections workers are dedicated to public safety and to the safety of the prisoners they supervise.  

Time after time, with no fanfare, they rise to the challenging circumstances of their unique vocation. 

The weight of responsibility and pressures on corrections officials are great, but the most daunting task of all falls to the Execution Team.  

People feel trauma — it's worse if the execution is unsuccessful


In my previous roles as commissioner and deputy commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Correction, I was part of that team. I took pride in the fact that each person on the team handled his or her role with the highest degree of professionalism.

Each team member felt great responsibility to ensure that the laws of the State were carried out flawlessly.

Corrections officials who have overseen executions in Florida, Georgia, Oregon, South Carolina, Texas and elsewhere have spoken out about the personal trauma they experienced from participating in executions.

Individuals are affected differently, but corrections officials have discussed post-execution traumas ranging from nightmares, depression, alcohol and drug abuse, and even suicide. 

The vast majority of these executions went as planned, and they still caused harm to many public servants tasked with carrying them out.

What happens to corrections professionals in the event of a botched execution?  

We simply should not ask our Tennessee corrections professionals to conduct executions that risk any of this happening. Yet midazolam is still in the new lethal injection protocol, a protocol no execution team in Tennessee has ever used. 

What we know is that executions could be botched 


Notably, last fall, while the Tennessee Supreme Court was considering the constitutionality of Tennessee’s lethal injection protocol, Justice Sharon Lee asked Associate Solicitor General Jennifer Smith, “So how do we know that our execution won’t be botched?” Ms. Smith responded, “We don’t.”

What we do know is that the state plans to use two drugs that have been compounded, rather than obtained in FDA-approved form. We also know that the midazolam has been obtained from an unlicensed compounding pharmacy.

These factors increase the risk of a problematic execution because the precise conditions of the drugs’ manufacture and accurate information about their active ingredients may not be known, among other concerns. 

Under any circumstances, carrying out a lethal injection execution is a very challenging and complex task.  In my work on Tennessee’s Execution Team, I found that the hours before, during, and after an execution – even when it is conducted rapidly and with no issues — are surreal.  Sometimes the negative effects do not surface immediately but are exposed years later. 

The current plan to conduct executions in Tennessee using risky drugs from unreliable sources places a heavy burden on our corrections professionals.

It is my hope that the Tennessee Supreme Court will stop this process and that Governor Haslam will consider the tremendous impact on these dedicated employees of the State if an execution does not go smoothly.

For their sake, Tennessee should delay the scheduled execution of Billy Ray Irick on Thursday. The state hasn’t executed since 2009 and when our Execution Team begins preparations for its first execution in nearly a decade, we must first ensure that there is a drug protocol in place that puts these employees at the least possible risk of harm.

Source: The Tennessean, Gayle Ray, Opinion, August 6, 2018. Gayle Ray is a former Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Correction.


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"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed,
but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." -- Oscar Wilde

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