Breaking News
More () »

Memphis News & Weather | Memphis, TN | WATN - localmemphis.com

Former Tennessee Supreme Court justice shares history of death penalty

Billy Ray Irick is scheduled to be put to death Aug. 9 in Nashville at 8 p.m. Eastern time, marking the first capital punishment in Tennessee since 2009.

Former Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Gary Wade says the decision to put someone to death is not an easy one. The state carried out four executions during his time in office. 

“I remember all four vividly,” he said.

But upholding a death sentence does not come without moral conflict.

“I have concerns, as I think many other judges do,” Judge Wade said. “And the question in their own minds is whether they can continue to be fair and impartial and impose the penalty of death even if their inner feelings suggest otherwise.” 

The history of capital punishment in Tennessee dates back to 1796. The first method of execution: by hanging. It wasn’t until the 1900s when electrocution became the law of the land for death penalty cases in Tennessee.

In 1986, convicted killer and child rapist Billy Ray Irick was ordered to be put to death by this method, but it was during a period when death penalty was not administered in the state. 

“At that time, there were unusual delays in the middle district of Tennessee and for whatever reason, many believe that the federal judge at that time closest to Riverbend was opposed to the death penalty,” Wade said. 

Tennessee resumed capital punishment in 2000, and by then, lethal injection was the new method of execution. It continues to be used today despite moral challenges.

“It’s always been upheld and more recently, the opinions suggest that a little pain whether it’s lethal injection or electrocution is not a basis in which to find the penalty is cruel and unusual,” Wade said.

The most recent state-ordered date with death was in 2009.

“In my view, the reason for the delay has been nothing more than the lack of availability of the drug and that’s become an increasing problem for states that maintain the death penalty,” Wade said.

And now, if all goes as planned, Billy Ray Irick will be the first person in Tennessee to die by death penalty in nearly a decade, bringing justice to a high profile case after 32 years.

“It sends the message of accountability,” Wade said, “that should a jury return a sentence of death, that it is likely to happen.”

Irick is scheduled to be put to death Aug. 9 in Nashville at 8 p.m. Eastern time.