Tennessee carries out first execution since 2009, using 'torturous' drug cocktail

A death chamber.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

On Thursday night, Tennessee executed Billy Ray Irick, 59, for the 1985 rape and murder of 7-year-old Paula Dyer. He's the first death row inmate Tennessee executed since 2009 and the state's first one using a controversial lethal cocktail containing midazolam, a drug aimed at stopping pain before the inmate is injected with the paralytic drug vecuronium bromide and finally compounded potassium chloride, the lethal drug.

The U.S. Supreme Court denied a stay of execution, with Justice Elena Kagan's signature and Justice Sonia Sotomayor's scathing dissent. "Although the midazolam may temporarily render Irick unconscious, the onset of pain and suffocation will rouse him ... just as the paralysis sets in, too late for him to alert bystanders that his execution has gone horribly (if predictably) wrong," Sotomayor wrote. "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." Previously, the Supreme Court has compared potassium chloride to "chemically burning at the stake."

States have turned to midazolam in recent years as supplies of other lethal-injection drugs have dried up, in large part because drugmakers are refusing to sell states products to kill people. Midazolam has failed several times, and when Tennessee administered the drugs to Irick, The Tennessean reports, "he was coughing, choking, and gasping for air. His face turned dark purple as the lethal drugs took over." Another concern in the case is that Irick was mentally ill, according to Robert Durham at the Death Penalty Information Center. Tennessee is considering a bill barring the execution of people with serious mental illnesses, Durham said, and "it's unseemly that Irick would be executed and then the case ultimately gets resolved in his favor." Tennessee has two more executions scheduled this year.

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Peter Weber

Peter Weber is a senior editor at TheWeek.com, and has handled the editorial night shift since the website launched in 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian and plays bass and rhythm cello in an Austin rock band. Follow him on Twitter.