A man named Billy Ray Irick died this week in Tennessee. Irick’s passing was no surprise to those familiar with him, as he’d been sentenced to die by a jury for the brutal rape and murder of a seven-year-old girl back in 1986. What’s surprising is the blind eye turned to Irick’s execution method: a three drug lethal injection that potentially tortured Irick for up to 18 minutes.
Tennessee’s lethal injection procedure involves administration of three drugs: midazolam, which is supposed to act as a sedative rendering the subject unable to feel pain, vecuronium bromide, a muscle relaxer, and a final dose of compound potassium chloride which stops the heart. Adopted in January, the procedure sounds, in theory, as if it’s a humane way to end someone’s life.
But it’s only theoretically humane because there’s a chance midazolam doesn’t work as well as people expect. In fact, there’s enough of a concern over the efficacy of midazolam that several death row inmates are in a class action lawsuit claiming the midazolam lethal injection protocol constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.
The concerns fell on deaf ears all the way up to the United States Supreme Court, which denied a stay of Irick’s execution. Justice Sotomayor wasn’t going to let this go without having her say. In a six page dissent, Justice Sotomayor blasted the Volunteer State’s decision to end Irick’s life in a manner described as “the chemical equivalent of being burned at the stake.”
As noted above, the trial court credited the evidence put on by Irick and his co-plaintiffs, finding that they “established that midazolam does not elicit strong analgesic [i.e., pain-inhibiting] effects,”and that therefore Irick “may be able to feel pain from the administration of the second and third drugs.” Id., at 21. Those are the drugs that will paralyze him and create sensations of suffocation and of burning that “‘may well be the chemical equivalent of being burned at the stake’” before eventually stopping his heart.
So the trial court hearing the case gave Irick and the other plaintiffs credit that midazolam might not work as well as people wanted to believe it did. It also listened to anecdotal testimony from other executions that indicated those subject to the three-drug protocol did suffer intense pain during their deaths. And despite all this, the trial court’s ruling was “no big deal.”
If Irick didn’t get the three-drug protocol, his other option was to pick a method of death that would be available to the state. In this macabre situation, Irick suggested either one injection of pentobarbital or the omission of vercuronium bromide from the injection protocol. The State claimed pentobarbital was unavailable, and shrugged with regards to omitting the second of the three drugs. Justice Sotomayor was not impressed with this predicament.
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. I cannot in good conscience join in this “rush to execute” without first seeking every assurance that our precedent permits such a result…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.
Billy Ray Irick was not a nice person. He raped and murdered a seven-year-old girl who knew and trusted him. That does not excuse us as a society for turning a blind eye to a procedure that subjects a person to excruciating pain and torture in their final minutes. We can and should be better, because we know more humane methods exist. And despite our innate desire for revenge, to see that bastard get his comeuppance, our moral, rational selves know his suffering doesn’t alleviate the suffering of Paula Dyer or her family.
Perhaps Justice Sotomayor’s words ring a little more true than usual. Maybe in turning a blind eye to Irick’s last moments on this life, we really have accepted barbarism over the civilized rule of law.
UPDATE: On a cursory research of the web, Irick’s request of a single injection of pentobarbital would have resulted in a far quicker death with fewer chemicals and one injection. The State’s response that pentobarbital was not available is asinine bullshit, as the drug is used often for shelter euthanasia.
Tennessee treated Billy Ray Irick worse than a stray dog when he died.