Did Texas execute an innocent man? Film revisits a haunting question.

Texans will have an opportunity to revisit a question that should haunt anyone who believes in the integrity of our criminal justice system: Did our state execute an innocent man? 
The new film “Trial by Fire” tells the true story of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was sentenced to death for setting a fire to his home in Corsicana that killed his three young daughters in 1991. The film is based on an investigative story by David Grann that appeared in the New Yorker in 2009, five years after Willingham was executed over his vociferous protestations of innocence.
In my experience of serving 8 years on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and 4 years as a state district judge in Travis County, the Willingham case stands out to me for many of the same reasons it stood out to filmmaker Edward Zwick, who calls it a veritable catalogue of everything that’s wrong with the criminal justice system and, especially, the death penalty. False testimony, junk science, a jailhouse informant, and ineffe…

Tennessee Executes Inmate With Controversial Drugs Despite Sotomayor's Powerful Dissent

Justice Sonia Sotomayor
Justice says the U.S. is "accepting barbarism" as the execution of Billy Ray Irick is allowed to go forward.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor issued a blistering dissent that we are "accepting barbarism" after the Supreme Court refused to halt Tennessee's execution Thursday night of Billy Ray Irick, 59, using a controversial drug combination.

Irick was put to death for the 1985 rape and murder of 7-year-old Paula Dyer. He coughed, choked and gasped for air after the 3-drug cocktail was administered, The Tennessean reported. His face turned dark purple as he died.

Before the lethal drugs were injected, Irick said, "I just want to say I'm really sorry and that, that's it." Blinds between the execution room and witnesses were opened at 7:26 p.m. Central time, and Irick was declared dead at 7:48.

Sotomayor accused the U.S. of no longer being a civilized nation and "accepting barbarism" in a blistering dissent after the high court refused Thursday to stop the execution using drugs that had resulted in painful, botched executions in the past.

Irick and several other death row inmates sued early this year to halt the execution, arguing that the state's new death cocktail, including the controversial sedative midazolam, would be tantamount to torture and a violation of the Constitution's prohibition against "cruel and unusual punishment."

Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan denied a request to stay Irick's execution.

"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 in her moving dissent Thursday.

During a trial in state court, medical experts "explained in painstaking detail how the 3-drug cocktail Tennessee plans to inject into Irick's veins will cause him to experience sensations of drowning, suffocating and being burned alive from the inside out," she wrote. "The entire process will last at least 10 minutes and perhaps as many as 18."

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."

Irick, who had a history of mental illness, was the 1st inmate killed by the state since 2009 and the 1st to be executed with the new drug cocktail.

Medical experts testified in Irick's court case that midazolam is not powerful enough to sedate prisoners who are experiencing deadly, caustic chemicals being pumped into their veins. Experts described midazolam as something given to hospital patients to relax them before anesthesia. The drug is not powerful enough to prevent inmates from feeling pain from a 2nd paralytic drug (vecuronium bromide), and then the death agent potassium chloride, which has been described by the Supreme Court as "chemically burning at the stake."

In 2014, an inmate in Oklahoma grimaced and kicked during his 2014 deadly injection including midazolam. Authorities called off the execution, but he died shortly after. One Arizona execution using the drug lasted 2 hours.

Ironically, the death row prisoners lost their case in part because they could offer no court-accepted alternatives for more effective drugs.

Europe, which opposes the death penalty, has refused to sell more effective drugs to the U.S. that have been traditionally used for executions. Domestic drugmakers have also objected to their drugs being used in executions, according to The Washington Post.

Irick was living with Paula Dyer's mother and stepfather in 1985 when he attacked the girl. The family reported that Irick heard voices and was "taking instructions from the devil," according to court records.

Irick is the 133rd person executed in Tennessee since 1916.

Source: Huffington Post, August 10, 2018

Tennessee executes Billy Ray Irick, 1st lethal injection in state since 2009

Riverbend Maximum Security Institution
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 1st 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.

Before his death, Irick ate his last meal. Shiles said earlier Thursday that Irick was in good spirits and understood he would be executed.

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 quietly coming and going from Riverbend Maximum Security Institute Thursday evening, walking out after the execution with a tissue in her left hand.

She chose not to speak at a news conference being held afterward outside the prison.

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.

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.

People came out to the site of the execution of Billy Ray Irick Andrew Nelles and Holly Meyer

"I thought somebody would actually look at the facts," Shiles said Thursday just before the execution, referring to evidence supporting Irick's mental illness. "I was wrong."

Roughly 5 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.

"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.

Billy Ray Irick
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 4-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.

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.

Source: The Tennessean & Rick Halperin, August 10, 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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