KNOX COUNTY — If there’s anyone who knows what it takes to put someone to death, it’s former Justice Gary Wade.
“There were four executions during my time in office,” said Wade, a former chief justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court and current dean of the LMU Law School. “Each and every one caused a great deal of pain and agony.”
Wade was appointed to the Tennessee Supreme Court in 2006 and served as chief justice from September 1, 2012, to August 31, 2014. He now acknowledges the challenges justices currently serving on the court face when it comes to capital punishment.
“Moral opposition is one thing. We are sworn to uphold the law above all else and that sometimes means setting aside our own sense of propriety, our own sense of morality,” Wade said. “While I perfectly understand the reluctance, particularly with the history of mental illness on the part of Mr. Irick, that issue has been resolved time and again.”
A jury convicted Irick, now 59, in 1986 of the rape and murder of 7-year-old Paula Dyer in Knox County.
Paula was one of five children Irick had babysitted regularly in Knoxville. He was friends with her mother, Kathy Jeffers, and Jeffers' husband Kenny. Irick was supposed to be babysitting the children in April 1985 in their Exeter Avenue home when he raped and murdered Paula.
Thirty-two years later, his lawyers have exhausted all of his state and federal appeals.
On Monday evening, Irick was moved to death watch by the Tennessee Department of Corrections. He is now watched 24 hours a day by guards in a cell close to the execution chamber at Riverbend Maximum Security Institition.
On Tuesday, Irick’s lawyers filed a motion with the United States Supreme Court to delay the execution. Barring intervention from the U.S. Supreme Court, he will die Thursday night by lethal injection.
At his original sentencing in 1986, Irick was ordered to be put to death by electrocution. The state has since moved to lethal injection.
Defense attorneys have argued Irick had a rough childhood that include institutionalization when he was just a boy.
“The United States Supreme Court has said that mental illness is not an obstacle to execution so long as the individual understands there is a relationship between the crime committed and the punishment administered,” said Wade.
Both the Tennessee Supreme Court as well as Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam declined to intervene on Irick’s behalf.
Wade said he is not surprised.
“Mr. Irick, according to the governor, had full access to due process and at each and every turn he was denied release,” said Wade. “All of these issues have been previously determined and Mr. Irick has been unable to meet the applicable legal standard. Thus, I am not surprised at all that Gov. Haslam would feel compelled to uphold the law as part of his oath.”
The state Supreme Court denied Irick’s lawyers motion to put off the execution.
Justice Sharon Lee wrote the dissenting opinion, arguing there was no reason to rush the process.
Wade understands why proponents of the death penalty say it’s time.
“Those who are opposed to the death penalty and representing their clients, appropriately so, are looking for any possible issue to raise in either the state or federal courts that might delay the execution,” Wade said. “I think the proponents of the penalty would say however that since 1986, that 32 years is enough for the criminal justice system to evaluate Mr. Irick’s eligibility for the penalty of death.”