Why would anyone ask this question: Is Knoxville’s Billy Ray Irick too impaired to be executed?

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Billy Ray Irick was convicted of the 1985 rape and murder of a 7-year-old girl he had been babysitting.

The Gannett News Organization and Knox News are asking that question by following those that believe that salvation on Earth is possible……. they have forgotten that salvation is not in their hands and never was. Matthew 19:

21 Jesus said unto him,If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast,and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me. 
22 But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had* great possessions. 
23 Then said Jesus unto his disciples,Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven. 
24 And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. 
25 When his disciples heard it, they were exceedingly amazed, saying, Who then can be saved? 
26 But Jesus beheld them, and said unto them,With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible. 
27 Then answered Peter and said unto him, Behold, we have forsaken all, and followed thee; what shall we have therefore? 
28 And Jesus said unto them,Verily I say unto you, That ye which have followed me, in the regeneration when the Son of man shall sit in the throne of his glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

As the state of Tennessee prepares to put to death Knoxville’s Billy Ray Irick, those opposed to executing mentally ill inmates gathered Wednesday.

The Tennessee Alliance for the Severe Mental Illness Exclusion (TASMIE), sponsored a panel to share perspectives about “continued execution of individuals with severe mental illness in our state,” the organization said.

The panel was one of a series of events planned to take place before the scheduled Aug. 9 execution of Irick, 59, who was convicted of raping and murdering a 7-year-old girl in 1985.

Irick’s defense said he was suffering a psychotic break when he raped and murdered the child, and has no memory of doing it. His childhood, fraught with behavioral issues, came to light years after his conviction.

“Irick has experienced a lifelong, severe, well-documented mental illness that included a 10-month in-patient stay at a psychiatric hospital when he was just 8 years old,” panel moderator Tasha Blakney explained to a small crowd at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church.

Tasha Blakney, of the law firm of Eldridge & Blakney,

Tasha Blakney, of the law firm of Eldridge & Blakney, moderates a panel sponsored by Tennessee Alliance for the Severe Mental Illness Exclusion regarding the execution of individuals with severe mental illness, at Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church Wednesday, July 18, 2018. Billy Ray Irick, who experienced lifelong, severe mental illness, is scheduled to be executed on August 9 for a crime he committed in Knoxville in 1985. (Photo: Caitie McMekin/News Sentinel)

TASMIE has pushed for an exception for capital defendants suffering from severe mental illnesses to spare them from the death penalty, but the group said it does not want to repeal capital punishment altogether.

“This is not an abolitionist group,” Sarah McGee, TASMIE coordinator said, “It’s just an extension of the intellectual disability exclusion.”

McGee referred to a 2002 Supreme Court case, Atkins v. Virginia, in which the Supreme Court struck down the death penalty for defendants who have impaired cognition due to an intellectual disability.

“People with severe mental illness who are impaired at the time of committing a crime are often as impaired or more impaired than a person with an intellectual disability,” “McGee said.

‘Too Ill to Execute’: Intellectual disability vs. mental illness

Panel speakers Jeff Stovall, a Vanderbilt psychiatrist, Susanne Bales, a public defender, and Ben Harrington, CEO of the Mental Health Association of East Tennessee, made it clear mentally ill defendants should face justice, though not be executed.

“The person should be prosecuted, punished and removed from society, but not executed,” said Susanne Bales, who worked on the case of Gregory Thompson, who died while awaiting execution on death row.

Thompson, who was sentenced to death for the brutal 1985 murder of 28-year-old Brenda Lane, was diagnosed with schizophrenia shortly after his confinement.

Bales said previous defense attorneys thought he was just an uncooperative or dishonest defendant when he was actually suffering schizophrenic delusions.

Susanne Bales, a public defender with the Federal Defender

Susanne Bales, a public defender with the Federal Defender Services of Eastern Tennessee speaks on a panel sponsored by Tennessee Alliance for the Severe Mental Illness Exclusion regarding the execution of individuals with severe mental illness, at Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church Wednesday, July 18, 2018. Billy Ray Irick, who experienced lifelong, severe mental illness, is scheduled to be executed on August 9 for a crime he committed in Knoxville in 1985. (Photo: Caitie McMekin/News Sentinel)

“People with a serious mental illness may not be defendants in the way we think of defendants,” Stovall said. “It’s a cognitive impairment that means they may not be able to communicate in the same way as others, or in the same way as the did before the illness presented itself. In many cases, a person could have gone to college and later lose the ability to communicate.”

Bales said Thompson had delusions that his songs were being played on the radio, or that after his execution he would be sent to Hawaii or to stand a military trial, which would exonerate him.

“He didn’t understand he was going to be executed and he didn’t understand what would happen after he was executed,” Bales said.

“It occurred to me at that point there needed to be an exception. He couldn’t process what it means to be executed and the courts say you need to understand your death in a meaningful way to be executed.”

No controlling weight

Severe mental illness still does not have a controlling weight in a jury trial. Stovall said in some cases revealing a client’s mental illness can even backfire with a criminal jury.

“Research has shown that because of the stigma around mental illness, that fact can work against a defendant,” Stovall said.

The stigma problem is two-fold, Stovall said, because the longer a defendant has gone without treatment, the more impaired the person’s brain can become.

“There are changes in the brain that occur over time that affect the way people see, interact or process the world,” he said.

TASMIE has said people with severe mental illness are also more at risk of wrongful conviction.

“They are more likely to be susceptible to making false confessions, have extreme difficulty assisting their counsel, are poor witnesses, and their demeanor can create a false impression of dangerousness or lack of remorse,” said Kelley Henry, a capital habeas attorney.

The Death Penalty Information Center estimates about 20 percent of inmates on death row have a mental illness, compared to about 16 to 18 percent in the general prison population.

A failed bill

Sen. Richard Briggs, R-Knoxville, attended too. Briggs introduced a bill to the General Assembly to protect those suffering from mental illness from the death penalty.

“If a diabetic person were driving a car and their blood sugar dropped and they passed out and hit someone on the sidewalk, the death penalty would not be on the table,” said Briggs, who is also a surgeon at St. Mary’s-Tennova Medical Center.

“It’s a medical, biological and pathological disease of the brain, and that’s why these people should not be held more to account than a person with diabetes.”

Briggs’ bill failed in a committee by one vote, despite being narrowly tailored to garner more support. An amendment to the bill even required exempted defendants to have documented mental illness before the commission of a crime, though the panel said that such documentation is not always realistic.

Sen. Richard Briggs, R-Knoxville, listens during a

Sen. Richard Briggs, R-Knoxville, listens during a panel sponsored by Tennessee Alliance for the Severe Mental Illness Exclusion regarding the execution of individuals with severe mental illness, at Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church Wednesday, July 18, 2018. Billy Ray Irick, who experienced lifelong, severe mental illness, is scheduled to be executed on August 9 for a crime he committed in Knoxville in 1985. (Photo: Caitie McMekin/News Sentinel)

He said he plans to reintroduce the bill next year after some electoral turnover.

“We know we’re going to have new members, so hopefully we’ll have a better chance of getting it out.”

Briggs said beyond humanitarian implications, there are practical reasons to adopt the bill. He mentioned an American Bar Association study that found a mental illness exclusion for the death penalty could have saved the state as much as $78 million, had it been in place when the death penalty was reinstated in the 1970s.

“We could do a lot for the state with that money,” he said.

Tennessee has carried out six executions since the death penalty was reinstated 44 years ago in 1974.

The last execution took place almost nine years ago, in 2009. Tennessee has sentenced one person to death in the last five years.

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