An article appears on the Knoxville News Sentinel site today entitled, “Death Row Inmate Makes Last Ditch Appeal” with the subtitle, “Irick claims he is too mentally ill to die for rape, murder of girl.”
Though this title may get the readers’ attention, it does little to help them understand the long, tortured history of Billy Ray Irick, who has suffered with severe mental illness since he was 6 years old.
There is no overstating the horror of this case–the rape and murder of 7-year-old, Paula Dyer. Her mother is quoted in this story and is understandably heartbroken and frustrated with the agonizing process of pursuing this death sentence for so many years.
But what is lacking in this article is the well-documented history of Irick’s battle with severe mental illness since childhood–his institutionalization in mental hospitals (as early as age 7 and throughout his life) and his obvious symptoms of psychosis at the time of the crime never mentioned by his attorneys at his trial. In fact, no mention was even made of his severe mental illness until his sentencing hearing.
What is also missing, except in passing, is Irick’s history of babysitting the Jeffers’ children, of living with the Jeffers’ family, and his lack of memory of what happened that night in the throes of a psychotic state.
Now psychiatrists say that Irick is functioning on the level of a 7-9 year old child. The prosecution argues that he is competent because he knows he is own death row, and he knows why. I would argue that a child could also know the answers to such questions but would still not be competent to be executed by the state. In fact, executing a juvenile is unconstitutional. Just because someone can answer “yes” to such basic questions does not mean that they also don’t hear voices, see things that aren’t there, or experience episodes of memory loss–all symptoms of severe mental illness.
This case is tragic from every angle and would only be made more tragic if the state of Tennessee executed a man who has struggled his whole life with an illness that was never adequately treated. The vast majority of people with severe and persistent mental illness are not violent, but obviously, it happens. Anyone who has had a family member or friend to suffer from a similar illness understands not only the difficulty of getting treatment but the continued lack of understanding of mental illness in our society.
I often feel like a broken record, but I will ask the question again, “When will we stop spending exorbitant amounts of money pursuing death for people like Billy Ray Irick and instead spend the money to treat them before they hurt people?” In a time of lean budgets, is our state better off executing Irick or providing mental health treatment to keep such violence from happening in the first place?
Executing Irick changes nothing. Using our resources to help prevent other Billy Iricks from acts of violence and to support families like the Jeffers does.
Photo provide by Nanci.phelan
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