BREAKING: Tennessee executes killer with controversial drugs that Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor said would likely inflict ‘torturous pain’
Billy Ray Irick, who was convicted of the 1985 rape and murder of a 7-year-old girl, became the first inmate put to death in the state since 2009. Authorities used a new three-drug cocktail that includes Midazolam — a drug that is supposed to keep the person from feeling pain but has been at the center of several botched executions in which a prisoner was conscious when the killing drugs were administered.
This story is being updated.
The U.S. Supreme Court denied a stay of execution for Billy Ray Irick on Thursday, which would make him the first Tennessee inmate to be put to death since 2009. Convicted of the 1985 rape and murder of 7-year-old Paula Dyer, barring any last-minute changes, Irick, 59, is scheduled to die at 7 p.m. EST at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville
The state plans to use a new three-drug cocktail for his lethal injection, made up of compounded Midazolam, vecuronium bromide (a paralytic drug) and compounded potassium chloride (the killing agent). Midazolam is used to render a person unable to feel pain during an execution.
Over the past several years, there have been numerous bungled Midazolam executions, in which a prisoner was conscious when the killing drugs were administered, raising questions about its effectiveness.
A second concern, according to Robert Durham, Executive Director of the Death Penalty Information Center, is that Irick is mentally ill and there is pending legislation in Tennessee that would make it illegal to apply the death penalty to individuals with serious mental illness.
Thursday’s application for a stay of execution was referred to the court by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan. The only noted dissent was from U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor; the court’s order did not specify how the other justices would have voted.
“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 in her dissent.
“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 also come before the U.S. Supreme Court numerous times. In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court heard a challenge to Midazolam and upheld its use, holding that the sedative used in Oklahoma’s cocktail did not violate the U.S. Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
Irick’s is the first death-penalty case that’s come to the court since Justice Anthony M. Kennedy retired on July 31, which left the court shorthanded.