Read Justice Sotomayor’s Powerful Dissent in the Latest Battle Over the Death Penalty

“We have stopped being a civilized nation and accepted barbarism.”

Jay Mallin/Zuma

Billy Ray Irick, a 59-year-old Tennessee death row inmate, is scheduled to die Thursday night for the 1985 rape and murder of seven-year-old Paula Dyer. In February, Irick and dozens of other Tennessee death row inmates filed a lawsuit against the state arguing that its new lethal injection cocktail, which includes the controversial sedative Midazolam that has been blamed for several botched executions, would be tantamount to torture.  

Just hours before his execution was set to begin, the US Supreme Court denied his stay of application, allowing the state to move forward. The court did not indicate how all the members voted, but Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a grim six-page dissent. 

“In refusing to grant Irick a stay, the Court today turns a blind eye to a proven likelihood that the State of Tennessee is on the verge of inflicting several minutes of torturous pain on an inmate in its custody,” Justice Sotomayor wrote.

In the lawsuit, experts warned that Midazolam was not sufficiently powerful to prevent inmates from feeling pain from the second drug, a paralyzer, and the third drug, which stops the heart. Ultimately, the inmates lost their case because they were unable to prove that there was a less painful way to carry out the executions or that the drugs could be considered cruel and unusual punishment. 

But Sotomayor disagreed. “If the law permits this execution to go forward in spite of the horrific final minutes that Irick may well experience,” she wrote, “then we have stopped being a civilized nation and accepted barbarism.”

Read her complete dissent here:


In 2014, before Donald Trump announced his run for president, we knew we had to do something different to address the fundamental challenge facing journalism: how hard-hitting reporting that can hold the powerful accountable can survive as the bottom falls out of the news business.

Being a nonprofit, we started planning The Moment for Mother Jones, a special campaign to raise $25 million for key investments to make Mother Jones the strongest watchdog it can be. Five years later, readers have stepped up and contributed an astonishing $23 million in gifts and future pledges. This is an incredible statement from the Mother Jones community in the face of huge threats—both economic and political—against the free press.

Read more about The Moment and see what we've been able to accomplish thanks to readers' incredible generosity so far, and please join them today. Your gift will be matched dollar for dollar, up to $500,000 total, during this critical moment for journalism.

We Recommend


Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.


Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.


We have a new comment system! We are now using Coral, from Vox Media, for comments on all new articles. We'd love your feedback.