Crime

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

Justice Sonia Sotomayor issued a blistering dissent that we are “accepting barbarism” after the Supreme Court refused to halt Tennesee’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 three-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 three-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 first inmate killed by the state since 2009 and the first 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 second 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 two 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.

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