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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…

Tennessee executes Billy Ray Irick

Billy Ray Irick
Death row inmate Billy Ray Irick died at 7:48 p.m. Thursday after Tennessee prison officials administered a lethal dose of toxic chemicals. He was 59. 

His execution, the first in Tennessee since 2009, comes after his 1986 conviction in Knox County for the rape and murder of 7-year-old Paula Dyer. 

Witnesses to the execution included members of Paula's family, Knox County Sheriff Jimmy "J.J." Jones, Tennessee Deputy Attorney General Scott Sutherland, Irick's attorney Gene Shiles and seven members of the media.

Irick is the 133rd person put to death by Tennessee since 1916. Before Irick, all but six executions occurred before 1961.

Before his death, Irick ate his last meal: a burger, onion rings and a Pepsi soft drink. Shiles said earlier Thursday that Irick was in good spirits and understood he would be executed. 

Family of Paula Dyer among witnesses inside prison


Irick lived with Paula's mother and stepfather, Kathy and Kenny Jeffers, in 1985. Although the family allowed the then-26-year-old Irick to live with them for some time, years after the crime they reported he exhibited signs of mental illness. 

Kathy Jeffers was among the small group of Dyer's family members seen entering Riverbend Maximum Security Institute Thursday evening. They were quiet and remained clustered together as they walked inside to where Irick would be executed.

Jeffers had warned her husband she didn't want to leave the children with Irick the night of Paula's killing, that she'd seen him muttering to himself in a half-drunk rage on the porch before she left for work.

Court records show the family reported Irick heard voices and was "taking instructions from the devil." He also reportedly, while carrying a machete, chased after a young girl in Knoxville in the days proceeding Paula's death. 

On April 15, 1985, Irick called Kenny Jeffers to say Paula would not wake up. 

Her parents found Paula dead on their bed. An autopsy showed she died of asphyxiation. Irick initially tried to hitchhike out of town, but was caught by police the day after Paula's death. 

Irick's death carried out Thursday after U.S. Supreme Court denied request


Before and during his 32 years on death row, Irick repeatedly attempted to convince courts he was too mentally ill to be executed or that the drugs set for use in a lethal injection would violate his constitutional right not to be tortured to death. 

While courts did delay his execution several times, most recently in 2014, no court decided to weigh in to prevent his death this time. 

Roughly five hours before Irick's death, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan denied his request to delay his execution. However, fellow Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor blasted the decision not to delay the execution while the state reviewed its lethal injection method. 

Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville.
"In refusing to grant Irick a stay, the Court today turns a blind eye to a proven likelihood that the state of Tennessee is on the verge of inflicting several minutes of torturous pain on an inmate in its custody, while shrouding his suffering behind a veneer of paralysis," Sotomayor wrote in her dissent. 

"I cannot in good conscience join in this 'rush to execute' without first seeking every assurance that our precedent permits such results ... if the law permits this execution to go forward in spite of the horrific final minutes that Irick may well experience, then we stopped being a civilized nation and accepted barbarism." 

Thursday afternoon, Catholic bishops in Nashville and Knoxville noted Pope Francis' recent rebuke of the death penalty to condemn Irick's execution. 

"The state has the obligation to protect all people and to impose just punishment for crimes, but in the modern world the death penalty is not required for either of these ends," wrote Bishop Richard F. Stika of Knoxville and J. Mark Spalding of Nashville. 

Appeal continues against Tennessee's lethal injection protocol


It's unclear what impact Irick's execution will have on a pending legal challenge to the state's lethal injection protocol.  

Irick joined 32 other death row inmates in a lawsuit arguing the three drugs Tennessee uses for lethal injections would violate their constitutional right to not be tortured to death. Experts at a trial in Davidson County argued the first drug, midazolam, does not always work as intended to render an offender unconscious and unable to feel pain. 

If the midazolam does not work, then the second and third drugs will cause pain similar to being burned alive and drowned, argued experts and attorneys for the death row offenders. 

Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle agreed the condemned may feel pain as he or she dies, but noted there is no legal right to a painless death. 

She rejected the inmates' lawsuit, prompting an appeal to the Tennessee Supreme Court. Citing a procedural bar for the first time, a majority of the state's high court determined the inmates had a low chance at succeeding and therefore Irick's execution should not be delayed. 

"By applying the law and requiring satisfaction of this legal standard, we are not 'rush(ing) to execute' Mr. Irick. In fact, this suggestion is astonishing, actually, given that Mr. Irick was convicted and sentenced 32 years ago and has obtained multiple stays over the years," the four-member majority wrote in a footnote of their opinion. 

In a relatively unusual move, Justice Sharon Lee dissented. 

"The harm to Mr. Irick of an unconstitutional execution is irreparable," Lee wrote in a forceful break with the majority. "Yet the harm to the State from briefly delaying the execution until after appellate review is minimal, if any."

Immediately after the state Supreme Court's decision, Gov. Bill Haslam also announced he would not intervene. 

"My role is not to be the 13th juror or the judge or to impose my personal views, but to carefully review the judicial process to make sure it was full and fair," Haslam said in a news release earlier this week. "Because of the extremely thorough judicial review of all of the evidence and arguments at every stage in this case, clemency is not appropriate.”

In January, the Tennessee Supreme Court scheduled an Oct. 11 execution for Edmond Zagorski and a Dec. 11 death date for David Earl Miller. 

Source: eu.tennessean.com, Dave Boucher, August 9, 2018


Tennessee executes Billy Ray Irick, first lethal injection in state since 2009


Tennessee's death chamber
Death row inmate Billy Ray Irick died at 7:48 p.m. Thursday after Tennessee prison officials administered a lethal dose of toxic chemicals. He was 59.

His execution, the first in Tennessee since 2009, comes after his 1986 conviction in Knox County for the rape and murder of 7-year-old Paula Dyer.

Witnesses to the execution included members of Paula's family, Knox County Sheriff Jimmy "J.J." Jones, Tennessee Deputy Attorney General Scott Sutherland, Irick's attorney Gene Shiles and 7 members of the media.

Irick is the 133rd person put to death by Tennessee since 1916. Before Irick, all but 6 executions occurred before 1961.

Moments before officials began administering the fatal doses, Irick, held down by straps over his chest and arms, muttered his final words: "I just want to say I'm really sorry. And that ... that's it."

The execution began later than scheduled, the blinds to the execution room being lifted at 7:26 p.m., 16 minutes later than the expected time of 7:10 p.m.

Irick, dressed in a white prison jumpsuit and black socks, was coughing, choking and gasping for air. His face turned dark purple as the lethal drugs took over, media witnesses reported.

"I never thought for one moment that it would come to this," Shiles said inside the prison before the execution began. "I never did."

Witnesses entered the execution viewing chamber at 6:43 p.m., where prison officials turned out the lights until the blinds to the glass were lifted.

Shiles and Deputy Attorney General Scott Sutherland left the viewing room at 7:12 p.m., presumably to go into the execution chamber and observe Irick's IV being adminsitered.

When the 2 men returned into the observation room around 7:25 p.m., Shiles told witnesses that he kissed Irick and touched him.

Moments later the blinds lifted and Irick made his statement, the administration of a combination of powerful and deadly medications commenced.

First the executioner injected Irick with midazolam, a drug intended to render Irick unconscious.

After Riverbend Warden Tony Mays determined Irick was unconscious, the executioner injected vecuronium bromide and potassium chloride. The drugs are intended to stop Irick's lungs and heart.

Around the country, death row offenders have writhed, screamed, groaned and gasped as lethal injection drugs take longer than expected to work — or don't work at all.

At least twice in Ohio, the state had to call off executions after prison staff could not find a viable vein for the intravenous injection of the drugs.

Irick was a heavy-set man. Tennessee does not change its execution protocol depending on the body type of the condemned. But midazolam has a different effect on different people.

Appeal continues against Tennessee's lethal injection protocol


It's unclear what impact Irick's execution will have on a pending legal challenge to the state's lethal injection protocol.

Irick joined 32 other death row inmates in a lawsuit arguing the 3 drugs Tennessee uses for lethal injections would violate their constitutional right to not be tortured to death. Experts at a trial in Davidson County argued the 1st drug, midazolam, does not always work as intended to render an offender unconscious and unable to feel pain.

If the midazolam does not work, then the second and third drugs will cause pain similar to being burned alive and drowned, argued experts and attorneys for the death row offenders.

Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle agreed the condemned may feel pain as he or she dies, but noted there is no legal right to a painless death.

She rejected the inmates' lawsuit, prompting an appeal to the Tennessee Supreme Court. Citing a procedural bar for the first time, a majority of the state's high court determined the inmates had a low chance at succeeding and therefore Irick's execution should not be delayed.

"By applying the law and requiring satisfaction of this legal standard, we are not 'rush(ing) to execute' Mr. Irick. In fact, this suggestion is astonishing, actually, given that Mr. Irick was convicted and sentenced 32 years ago and has obtained multiple stays over the years," the four-member majority wrote in a footnote of their opinion.

In a relatively unusual move, Justice Sharon Lee dissented.

"The harm to Mr. Irick of an unconstitutional execution is irreparable," Lee wrote in a forceful break with the majority. "Yet the harm to the State from briefly delaying the execution until after appellate review is minimal, if any."

Irick becomes the 7th condemned inmate to be put to death in Tennessee since the state resumed capital punishment in 2000.

Irick becomes the 15th condemned inmate to be put to death in the USA this year and the 1480th overall since the nation resumed executions on January 17, 1977.

Sources: The Tennessean & Rick Halperin, August 9, 2018


Tennessee executes killer with controversial drugs that Justice Sotomayor said could inflict ‘torturous pain’


Pain
Tennessee executed Billy Ray Irick on Thursday night, after the U.S. Supreme Court denied a final request to stay his execution. Convicted of the 1985 rape and murder of 7-year-old Paula Dyer, Irick, 59, is the first state inmate to be put to death since 2009. He was also the first to receive Tennessee’s new and controversial three-drug cocktail.

Thursday’s lethal injection was made up of compounded midazolam, used to render a person unable to feel pain during an execution, a paralytic drug called vecuronium bromide, and compounded potassium chloride for the killing agent. Potassium chloride has been described by the U.S. Supreme Court as “chemically burning at the stake.”

In recent years, there have been numerous executions where witness accounts raised questions about whether the inmates were sufficiently anesthetized when the killing drugs were administered. These performances have raised questions about Midazolam’s effectiveness as a sedative in executions. Thursday’s application for a stay of execution followed a lower state court determination that the new combination of drugs may not be not chemically appropriate.

A second concern in Irick’s case, according to Robert Durham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, was that Irick was mentally ill. Tennessee has pending legislation that, if passed, would make it illegal to apply the death penalty to a person with serious mental illness.

“It’s unseemly that Irick would be executed and then the case ultimately gets resolved in his favor,” said Durham.

The request to delay was referred to the U.S. Supreme Court by Justice Elena Kagan. The only noted dissent was from Justice Sonia Sotomayor; the court’s order did not specify how the other justices would have voted. Irick’s is the first death-penalty case that’s come to the court since Justice Anthony M. Kennedy retired July 31, which left the court shorthanded.

“Although the Midazolam may temporarily render Irick unconscious, the onset of pain and suffocation will rouse him. And it may do so just as the paralysis sets in, too late for him to alert bystanders that his execution has gone horribly (if predictably) wrong,” wrote Sotomayor. The dissent echoes comments she made last year aimed at Midazolam in a case involving an Alabama inmate.

“In refusing to grant Irick a stay, the Court today turns a blind eye to a proven likelihood that the State of Tennessee is on the verge of inflicting several minutes of torturous pain on an inmate in its custody,” Sotomayor wrote. “ . . . If the law permits this execution to go forward in spite of the horrific final minutes that Irick may well experience, then we have stopped being a civilized nation and accepted barbarism.”

Though controversial, the use of Midazolam has come before courts numerous times — and been used in multiple executions, some of them highly criticized.

In perhaps the most high-profile case, an inmate in Oklahoma grimaced and kicked during his 2014 lethal injection involving the drug. Authorities called off the execution, but he died not long after. A state investigation later blamed problems with the IV insertion. That same year, an Arizona execution using the sedative lasted for nearly two hours. Another execution that year in Ohio saw the inmate writhe and gasp for air and, in 2016, witnesses to an execution in Alabama said the inmate there coughed and heaved.

Midazolam
The U.S. Supreme Court heard a challenge to Oklahoma’s use of Midazolam in 2015 and upheld the state’s lethal injection protocol in a 5-to-4 decision, holding that the drug cocktail did not violate the U.S. Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Sotomayor referenced that decision in her dissent Thursday, writing that the court did not “did not categorically determine whether a lethal injection protocol using Midazolam is a constitutional method of execution” — but instead found no error in a lower court’s determination that the drug “was highly likely to prevent a person from feeling pain.”

States have turned to Midazolam in recent years as they struggled to obtain the drugs needed for lethal injections, a shortage fueled in part by the objections drugmakers have to their products being used to carry out death sentences. In response to the shortage, states have turned to new and untested drug combinations or explored other execution methods.

Oklahoma announced earlier this year that it would begin using nitrogen gas rather than lethal injections in response to the shortage, while Utah previously adopted firing squads as the state’s backup method of execution.

Last month, authorities in Nevada were hours away from carrying out the country’s first execution using fentanyl when a judge called it off due to a challenge from Alvogen, a drug company. The firm objected to Nevada’s plans to use its Midazolam, and in court filings the company listed the controversial executions in Oklahoma, Arizona and Alabama that all used the same drug.

Arkansas similarly resumed executions last year after a 12-year lull, carrying out four lethal injections in eight days. Officials said that frantic pace was necessary because their stock of Midazolam — acquired just days after the Supreme Court ruling upheld Oklahoma’s protocol in 2015 — was about to expire.

On Thursday, Irick’s execution began at 7:26 p.m. at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville. He was pronounced dead at 7:48. In the room with him was Deputy Attorney General Scott Sutherland, Sheriff Jimmy “J.J.” Jones, seven media witnesses and Irick’s attorney witness, C. Eugene Shiles.

Source: The Washington Post, Deanna Paul and Mark Berman, August 9, 2018


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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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