Tennessee is set to execute its first inmate since 2009 on Thursday evening, barring any last-minute intervention from the U.S. Supreme Court or some unexpected change.
Billy Ray Irick, 59, is scheduled to die by lethal injection with Tennessee's new three-drug cocktail for his conviction in the 1985 rape and murder of a 7-year-old Knoxville girl.
The execution would occur a week after Pope Francis revealed new church teaching that deems the death penalty "inadmissible" under all circumstances.
Additionally, Irick would die before there is resolution to a legal challenge against Tennessee's lethal injection drugs. The case is continuing in the state Court of Appeals.
In a ruling late last month, Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle wrote that attorneys for 33 death row inmates, including Irick, didn't prove that there is a substantially less painful means to carry out the execution or that the drugs the state plans to use would cause the inmate to be tortured to death.
Tennessee plans to use midazolam as a sedative, the muscle-relaxer vecuronium bromide and then potassium chloride to stop the heart. At question is whether midazolam actually is effective in rendering someone unconscious and unable to feel pain from the other two drugs. Federal public defender Kelley Henry said at trial that inmates were tortured to death, feeling like they were suffocating, drowning, and utterly confused.
The state had been using pentobarbital, but manufacturers have largely stopped selling it for executions. Attorneys for the state have also said the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the use of midazolam in a three-drug series.
On Monday, the state Supreme Court denied a stay of Irick's execution, saying the inmates' lawsuit wasn't likely to succeed.
Gov. Bill Haslam added shortly afterward that he won't intervene. Haslam said he took an oath to uphold the law, capital punishment is the law in the Tennessee, and it was ordered by a jury and upheld by more than a dozen state and federal courts.
"My role is not to be the 13th juror or the judge or to impose my personal views, but to carefully review the judicial process to make sure it was full and fair," Haslam said in a statement Monday. "Because of the extremely thorough judicial review of all of the evidence and arguments at every stage in this case, clemency is not appropriate."
Attorneys turned to the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday, asking for a stay.
State and national mental health organizations also asked the nation's high court to halt Irick's death, saying he has a long history of mental illness. Haslam touched on Irick's mental health Monday, contending that Irick was ruled competent to stand trial, the jury heard testimony about Irick's mental health at sentencing, and courts upheld the verdict 17 times, including 11 in the years after the trial when evidence emerged about Irick's behavior in the weeks leading up to the incident.
Faith leaders and other protesters led a rally Tuesday against the execution. The three Catholic bishops in Tennessee wrote the governor a letter before the pope's change to church teaching, telling Haslam that "the death penalty contributes to the growing disrespect for human life."
In Nevada, drug company Alvogen has sued to block use of midazolam in a stalled execution. Tennessee is one of 15 states siding with the state of Nevada against the company, though Tennessee is planning to use a version of the drug that is compounded, not directly purchased from a manufacturer.