Hours before Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty activists planned to speak at Thursday’s Campaign for Liberty of East Tennessee meeting, National Manager Hannah Cox was preparing to take the podium as the featured speaker at the event.
Cox spoke as someone relatively new to the movement against the death penalty, but she felt the timing was right to address the issue.
“I actually used to be very pro-death penalty myself, and I understand where people are coming from with this issue. It’s an emotional issue, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It should be an emotional issue,” she said.
After researching the death penalty as a policy advocate for the National Alliance of Mental Illness, she said she was shocked to find out that 162 prisoners convicted of murder have been exonerated since 1976 when the death penalty was reinstated. This got Cox thinking about the possibility of executing innocent prisoners and caused her to change her stance in 2015.
Cox said she believes many of the 1,414 prisoners executed since 1976 were mentally ill and or victims of socio-economic disparities, citing that about 25 percent of death row inmates in Texas were represented by a public defender that had been disbarred.
“That’s when I changed my mind on it,” Cox said. “I previously thought we had an exclusion for people who have a mental illness, but we do not. It’s for intellectual disabilities. We have a staggering amount of people with mental illness on death row.”
In the case of Irick, opponents of his execution have pointed to a history of mental illness, including being institutionalized at the age of 8 and numerous instances of hallucinations and dissociative episodes leading up to the murder and rape of 7-year-old Paula Dyer.
On Thursday, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan denied a request to delay Irick’s execution. Justice Sonya Sotomayor strongly disagreed with her decision and issued a statement saying the court was turning, “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, while shrouding his suffering behind a veneer of paralysis.
"I cannot in good conscience join in this 'rush to execute' without first seeking every assurance that our precedent permits such results ... if the law permits this execution to go forward in spite of the horrific final minutes that Irick may well experience, then we stopped being a civilized nation and accepted barbarism," Sotomayor wrote.
Ahead of the event in Morristown, Cox said she has noticed an increasing number of conservatives and right-leaning activists taking an anti-death penalty position. Cox said they will continue to fight the death penalty and work to create opposition within the right in the wake of Irick’s execution.
“As a Tennessee resident, I know first-hand that conservatives and libertarians in our state continue to re-evaluate the death penalty,” she said. “Tennessee is part of a nationwide trend of conservatives questioning whether capital punishment is consistent with their values.”
Irick was executed by lethal injection. He was the 133rd person put to death by the state since 1916. This was the first execution in Tennessee since 2009 and the seventh execution in the state since 1976.
Efforts to reach several local lawmakers, members of law enforcement and district attorneys for comment were unsuccessful.