Bishops respond to execution of Knox County death row inmate

Despite Pope Francis declaration that it is now ‘inadmissible,’ Tennessee carries out death penalty

By Jim Wogan and Bill Brewer

After Tennessee’s three bishops appealed to Gov. Bill Haslam to halt the execution of Billy Ray Irick based on Christian beliefs and Catholic teaching, the state on Aug. 9 carried out its first death penalty since 2009.

Immediately following the execution, Diocese of Knoxville Bishop Richard F. Stika and Diocese of Nashville Bishop J. Mark Spalding called it an “unnecessary” act that “served no useful purpose.”

Mr. Irick, 59, was pronounced dead at 7:48 p.m. CDT at the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville after he was administered a lethal injection of three drugs: Midazolam, a sedative; vecuronium bromide, a paralytic to halt breathing; and potassium chloride, which causes cardiac arrest.

He had been on death row since 1986, when a Knox County jury sentenced him for the rape and murder of 7-year-old Paula Dyer.

Bishop Stika joined Bishop Spalding and Diocese of Memphis Bishop Martin D. Holley in urging Gov. Haslam to stop the scheduled executions of at least three men currently on death row in the state prison system.

Click to read letter

In a letter to Gov. Haslam, the bishops urged the governor “to use your authority as governor to put an end to the fast-track executions planned for later this year.”

“The Catholic Church has redefined its understanding of capital punishment since the time of St. John Paul and with that in mind, we (the bishops) wrote the governor and we asked him to not sign off on the death warrant, because the governor can commute it to life without parole,” Bishop Stika said in a recent interview.

The letter also asked the governor to reflect on recent history and the impact of his decision.

“It is within your power to establish your legacy as a governor of Tennessee who did not preside over an execution on your watch,” the bishops’ letter said.

The last execution in Tennessee took place on Dec. 2, 2009, before Gov. Haslam took office. There currently are 62 people on death row in Tennessee.

In the hours before Mr. Irick was put to death, Bishops Stika and Spalding again voiced their strong objections to the execution, saying, “The state has the obligation to protect all people and to impose just punishment for crimes, but in the modern world the death penalty is not required for either of these ends. We echo the words of Pope Francis, who recently declared as definitive teaching that “in light of the Gospel,” the death penalty is “inadmissible” in all cases “because it attacks the dignity of the person, a dignity that is not lost even after having committed the most serious crimes.”

Mr. Irick’s death penalty was upheld by the Tennessee Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court, which on Aug. 9 refused to hear the inmate’s appeal after all other appeals were exhausted.

Tennessee’s dioceses were saddened by the state’s action in light of the Holy Father’s recent change in the Catechism of the Catholic Church concerning the death penalty.

“We, as the Roman Catholic bishops of Nashville and Knoxville, proclaim that Jesus Christ is the Lord of Life and Light. Tonight’s execution of Billy Ray Irick was unnecessary. It served no useful purpose,” said Bishops Stika and Spalding. “In this time of sadness, that began many years ago with the tragic and brutal death of Paula Dyer and continues with another death tonight, we believe that only Jesus Christ can bring consolation and peace.

“We continue to pray for Paula and for her family. And we also pray for Billy Ray Irick, that his final human thoughts were of remorse and sorrow, for we believe that only Christ can serve justice. We pray for the people of Tennessee that they will embrace the Light and Life that is Jesus Christ. And we hope that we may all come to cherish the dignity that His love instills in every person — at every stage of life,” the bishops said in a statement following the execution.

In appealing to Gov. Haslam before the execution, Bishop Stika, in the letter from the bishops, recounted his personal experience with Pope St. John Paul II’s role in commuting to life in prison the sentence of a death row inmate in Missouri in 1999.

The commutation of convicted killer Darrell Mease’s death sentence came after a complicated set of events and last-minute meetings arranged by then-Monsignor Stika at the request of Cardinal Secretary of State Angelo Sodano, which eventually led to a brief exchange at a prayer service between Pope St. John Paul II and Missouri’s governor, Mel Carnahan.

“I was standing behind Pope St. John Paul II and next to Cardinal Rigali when there was this brief meeting between Gov. Carnahan and the pope, and the pope put his hand on the governor’s arm and he said, ‘Mercy for Darrell Mease.’ That’s all he said, ‘Mercy,’” Bishop Stika recalled.

“We didn’t know what the governor was going to do. So, the prayer service finishes and the pope leaves the United States. A couple of days later, the governor commuted the sentence, at great political cost to him,” the bishop explained.

“(St. John Paul II) said that (the death penalty) is simply not necessary as the only means to protect society while still providing a just punishment for those who break civil laws. Rather than serving as a path to justice, the death penalty contributes to the growing disrespect for human life,” the letter to Gov. Haslam stated.

The bishops’ letter preceded by just days Pope Francis’ directive to revise the Catechism of the Catholic Church to state that the “death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”

The Holy Father said the Church will now be committed to working toward abolition of the death penalty worldwide.

Meanwhile, the legal debate over Mr. Irick’s execution continues at a feverish pace as lawyers for 33 death row inmates have contended the state of Tennessee’s current procedure for lethal injection violates the U.S. Constitution.

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