Analysis: Will Billy Ray Irick Receive a Stay of His Aug. 9 Execution?


Deborah Denno was quoted in a Tennessean article about a lawsuit in Tennessee challenging the state’s use of lethal injection as capital punishment.

After more than 30 years on death row, Billy Ray Irick is less than two weeks from becoming the first person executed in Tennessee in nearly a decade.

The 59-year-old Knox County man, convicted in the 1985 rape and murder of a 7-year-old girl, has no remaining legal options on his own case. His execution is scheduled for Aug. 9.

But, David Raybin, a Nashville attorney who helped write Tennessee’s death penalty statute in 1976, said he would be “astounded” if the state actually executed Irick anytime soon.

Nashville Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle resoundingly rebuked the lawsuit filed by Irick and 32 other death offenders Thursday, issuing a ruling that allowed the state to proceed with its controversial three-drug lethal injection protocol.

But the lawsuit is “postured perfectly” for a stay of execution, Raybin said. That’s because the state’s high court has never taken a stance on this specific lethal injection methodology, and an appeal of Lyle’s decision would take at least three months.

The “sloppy” ruling provides more than enough fodder for them to potentially prevail, said Deborah Denno, a law professor at Fordham University in New York City and a death penalty expert.

“I think they have a strong case for appeal,” Denno said. “This is not a well-argued opinion, and I think there are many ways they can poke large holes in it.”

Lyle said the offenders failed to meet standards established in U.S. Supreme Court precedents in order to prove the state is violating the U.S. Constitution.

Those standards are:


  • There is a different means to carry out the execution that is readily available and substantially less painful; and
  • The drugs the state plans to use would cause the inmate to be tortured to death.


But Denno thought Lyle put far too much trust in the word of the Tennessee Department of Correction when officials said they could not find other lethal injection drugs. And she questioned Lyle’s process in determining the drugs did not amount to torture.

“Any of us know you can experience great torture in far less time than that. Time has always been one element of assessing torture, but for the court to hold that, there’s really not a basis for it,” Denno said.


“Nobody has said 10 to 18 minutes is too short of time to be considered torturous.”

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