By Lucas Johnson, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Tennessee Supreme Court has postponed the state’s first execution in nearly five years following a legal challenge to the new way it plans to put inmates to death.
Billy R. Irick has been on death row since 1986 for the rape and murder of a 7-year-old girl. The 55-year-old was scheduled to die Jan. 15, but the court changed the date to Oct. 7 after questions were raised about the constitutionality of a drug the state now wants to use for its executions.
Tennessee announced in September that it’s switching from a three-drug lethal injection method to using only the sedative pentobarbital to put an inmate to death. Arizona, Idaho, Ohio and Missouri already have carried out executions using only the drug, a barbiturate that is most commonly used to euthanize animals and treat seizures.
In its ruling, the Tennessee Supreme Court agreed with Irick’s attorneys that currently “there is no controlling law in Tennessee on the constitutionality of the use of the single drug pentobarbital to execute a death row inmate.”
Irick’s attorneys did not immediately return a call to The Associated Press on Thursday.
Correction Department spokeswoman Dorinda Carter didn’t comment on the court’s ruling, but said the state is prepared to execute Irick whenever the court sets the date.
Kelley Henry supervises capital punishment defense cases with the Federal Public Defender’s Office in Nashville and represents several inmates the state is looking to execute.
She told The Tennessean she’s pleased with the court’s ruling.
“Our Supreme Court recognized that these are important constitutional issues which have never been litigated in this state,” she said. “We look forward to the opportunity to have our day in court.”
Before the court’s ruling, the state had asked the high court for dates to execute at least 11 inmates. Besides Irick, the only other date that’s been set is for Nickolus Johnson, who is scheduled to be put to death April 22 for killing a Bristol police officer in 2004.
The last inmate executed by injection in the state was Cecil Johnson, on Dec. 2, 2009.
There are 79 inmates on Tennessee’s death row, including one woman.