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‘World Day against the Death Penalty’

World Day against the Death Penalty

Today, October 10th, marks the 12th annual World Day against the Death Penalty. Abolitionists around the world are taking this day to highlight the systemic failures of the death penalty. This year the day’s focus is on the continued practice of executing those with severe mental illness. The U.S. Supreme Court has established that those who are legally “insane” should not be executed, and yet the legal definition of “insanity” has not kept pace with the medical understanding of severe mental illness. Thus the inhumane practice continues.

Billy Ray Irick, who recently received a temporary reprieve from the Tennessee courts delaying his scheduled Oct. 7 execution, is just one of the individuals on Tennessee’s death row who suffers from severe mental illness. Irick was sentenced to death for the rape and murder of seven-year-old Paula Kay Dyer in 1985, a child he baby-sat for two years while living as an “adopted” member of her family. Irick’s story of mental illness began in early childhood. By the age of eight, he was admitted to a psychiatric hospital and given anti-psychotic medication for 10 months. His struggles with mental illness is well-documented and continued into adulthood. Though at the time of the murder, Irick was exhibiting class signs of someone in a psychotic state, the only evidence of mental illness that his lawyers briefly presented came during the sentencing hearing of his trial.

In Tennessee and other states around the country, millions of dollars are spent on maintaing the death penalty, while mental health and victims’ support services are being underfunded and hospitals closed. If we used our resources more proactively to focus on treatment and support for those with severe and persistent mental illness, the tragic murder of Paula Kay Dyer might have been averted.

On this year’s World Day against the Death Penalty, we encourage you to write your state lawmakers and the Governor to share your concerns about the death penalty, particularly the execution of those with severe mental illness.  Let’s treat those with severe mental illness and not execute them.


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