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Tennessee’s Death Penalty Roller Coaster Makes Us All Sick

I am not a fan of roller coasters. As a kid, I tried to be. But after a few instances of losing my lunch, I decided they just weren’t my thing. And though I get that some folks find the amusement park versions to be thrilling, real life roller coasters tend to make us all a bit nauseous. The death penalty system is one of those real life roller coasters that the state of Tennessee is trying to ride again. So far, it is has been rough going. I can’t say that I am surprised.

In January of this year, Tennessee set an August 9th execution date for Billy Ray Irick after nearly ten years with no executions in the state. Mr. Irick committed a heinous crime, the rape and murder of a a little girl, Paula Dyer.  Mr. Irick is also a man who has had significant mental health issues since childhood, issues that were present at the time of the crime and about which his jury was never given accurate information. He has been on Tennessee’s death row for over 30 years.

Roughly a month after the state set Mr. Irick’s execution date, the Tennessee Attorney General (AG) then requested that the Tennessee Supreme Court set eight more execution dates before June 1st. What? Tennessee has executed only six people since 1960, and the AG wants eight executions in three months. Such a move is unprecedented in the modern era of the death penalty in our state.

Arkansas tried it though. The state attempted to execute eight men in 10 days last spring with swift condemnation coming from many corners. When all was said and done, Arkansas executed four of those men, doing so against the express wishes of the drug manufacturer whose product was used in the executions and while disregarding the very real concerns of the state’s corrections community about the detrimental mental health impact these executions could have on those ask to carry them out.

Then, in another twist, just a few days ago, the Tennessee Supreme Court denied the request of Tennessee’s AG to set these eight dates before June 1. But the Court did set two more execution dates, an Oct. 11 date for Edmond Zagorski and a Dec. 6 date for David Miller.  Anyone else feeling queasy?

All of these nine men have been in prison for decades, serving life sentences while waiting for death sentences to be carried out. The victims’ families have been trapped in capital litigation for the same amount of time, and though a few dates are now set, there is no guarantee that these executions will happen. And, if they do, will they give families the experience of justice that they were promised so long ago?

Taxpayers are still on the hook for propping up this colossal waste of tax dollars while those with opioid addiction and mental health issues in Tennessee may not be able to access treatment because our state doesn’t have enough resources to treat all who need it. And though none of us wants to believe that any of the 60 people sitting on Tennessee’s death row right now are actually innocent, the research says that some of them are.

Paul House was wrongfully convicted, spending nearly 23 years on Tennessee’s death row before his release. The petition that Paul has created asks Governor Haslam not to resume executions because what happened to him can and does happen to others. In fact, three other men also spent decades on Tennessee’s death row before their wrongful convictions were addressed. They were finally released after years of legal wrangling and despite the state’s best efforts to keep them there.

This real life roller coaster that is the death penalty is fraught with problems and always will be. It takes us on a terrifying ride that does nothing to make our communities safer and wastes resources that could be used to prevent violent crime. It is not fairly applied and too often only exposes victims’ families to more trauma as they wait for a sentence that may never be carried out.

It’s time. Let’s shut this thing down. The setting of these execution dates in Tennessee is increasingly out of step with the national trends away from the death penalty. Death sentencing and executions are at historic lows, and public support for the death penalty has dipped to levels not seen in 40 years. And, we have alternatives, like a life sentence (51 years before parole eligibility) and life without the possibility of parole, that are cheaper and don’t risk executing innocent people. Let’s promote a policy that supports victims’ families and offers them tools for healing. Let’s get smarter in using our resources to address the root causes of the violence in our communities so that we can prevent these horrible crimes from happening in the first place. Stop this ride that is making us all sick. End the death penalty in Tennessee.



Tennessee Must Not Resume Executions

Nearly 10 years have passed with no executions in Tennessee. With the ongoing controversy and legal challenges surrounding lethal injection, executions have been sporadically on-again, off-again for the last decade.  And even with an execution date now set, there is reason to believe that Billy Ray Irick, the man who is set to die on August 9, 2018, may not be mentally competent for the execution to occur. His case has wound through the courts for over 30 years, and still no legal finality.

The crime for which Mr. Irick was sentenced to death was heinous. He was convicted and sentenced to death in 1986 for the rape and murder of 7-year-old Paul Dyer of Knoxville, for whom he was babysitting. Her family has obviously suffered unspeakable pain, and three decades of court dates and media stories forcing them to relive the trauma of their daughter’s death over and over again, have no doubt taken a toll. Even now, with this execution date on the calendar, nothing is sure.

Mr. Irick’s court appointed trial attorneys did little to investigate his long history of abuse and mental health issues and did not interview any of Paula’s step-family, with whom Mr. Irick was living just weeks before the murder. In 1999, when new attorneys appealed the case in federal court, an investigator finally spoke with Paula’s family who described Mr Irick as a man clearly in the throes of psychosis.

According to a recent article in the Nashville Scene, “In a brief filed in 2010, Irick’s attorneys argued that he ‘was experiencing a psychotic episode with hallucinations and/or delusions and that he has no memory of the offenses themselves or his role in them.’ Further, they contended that Irick did not, and could not, ‘have a rational understanding of his pending execution because he has no memory of the offenses, does not believe that he committed them, and has the emotional and social functioning of a child.’”  So, it stands to reason that Mr. Irick’s competency has been and will continue to be an issue in this case.

Beyond Mr. Irick, there are still 60 people awaiting execution on Tennessee’s death row, some who have been there as long as he has. Tennessee has executed six people since 1960 and occasionally sentences someone to death, though death sentencing in Tennessee is becoming more rare, as it is nationwide, with new death sentences in this country recently reaching a 40-year low.

Too often who ends up getting the death penalty in Tennessee has more to do with the defense you can afford, the color of your skin, the county in which you live, or your mental health status, than with the crime itself. Obviously such arbitrary factors should not determine whether you live or die in Tennessee, but too often, they do.

Add to these issues the real risk of executing an innocent person. Tennessee has executed six people since 1960 and released four others because we got it wrong…and those cases took decades to figure out. How many other innocent people are on death row right now? The system we have simply isn’t capable of ensuring that we get it right 100% of the time.

Given this reality, Tennessee death row exoneree Paul House has authored a petition asking that Governor Haslam not allow executions to resume in Tennessee, for Billy Ray Irick or for anyone else. Mr. House spent 22 years on death row before DNA evidence finally led to his release, and he knows better than anyone how real the risk of executing an innocent person is. With alternative sentencing like life and life without parole already available in Tennessee, pursuing executions is just not worth the risk.

Please sign and share this petition widely to demonstrate to Governor Haslam that as the nation moves away from executions, Tennessee should not move toward them. The risk is simply to great.

(Photo of Joyce and Paul House by Edward Tse)