Billy Ray Irick was pronounced dead Thursday night, 20 minutes after receiving a three-drug cocktail. Witnesses say there were no obvious signs that Irick suffered pain before dying.
Irick's execution was the state of Tennessee's first in nearly a decade.
Irick, convicted of the 1985 rape and murder of a young girl, had been one of 33 death row inmates contesting the use of lethal injection as an unconstitutional violation of their Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishments. But the U.S. Supreme Court declined on Thursday to stop the execution until that case is decided, effectively sealing Irick's fate.
Inside the death chamber at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville, Irick snored periodically after receiving a sedative, witnesses say. He could be seen breathing regularly through the first 10 minutes of the execution. He wasn't declared dead for another 10 minutes.
At one point, he coughed and jolted, according to witnessses, but Irick did not thrash, writhe or show any clear evidence of suffering.
The family of Irick's victim, 7-year-old Paula Dyer, were present for the execution. Irick's attorneys claim he was suffering a psychotic episode when he murdered Dyer while babysitting her in her Knox County home. The victim's family later said that Irick had been “hearing voices” and said he was “taking instructions from the devil” the night of her murder. The Nashville Scene also reported Irick had been referred for a mental health evaluation as young as six years old. But earlier this week, Gov. Bill Haslam rejected his appeal for clemency on those grounds, noting that an expert, jurors and state and federal courts had all considered his mental competency.
Among Irick's last words were, "I'm really sorry."
Outside Riverbend, dozens of people gathered to pay respect to Billy Ray Irick, his victim and their families. As the clock struck 7 p.m., the time Irick's execution was scheduled to begin, the group lit candles, formed a circle, and began a moment of silence.
They were disrupted by a small group of people across the fence. A man played AC/DC’s "Hells Bells" on a speaker. A woman, who said her name was Ashley, yelled she was glad Irick was dying. With her was her 11-year-old niece.
"She was molested from the time she was 2 years old to 6 years old by her daddy," Ashley said. She asked not to be identified by her last name to protect the child’s privacy.
"She's here and she's seeing, 'Hey, there's people that support what happened to me and the punishment for people who do those kinds of things.'"
Father John Boylan, a Franciscan priest, took another view. He spent 25 years working with mental health patients in prisons and says he understands that pain can manifest as anger. Boylan said the group was there to honor everyone who loses their life at the hands of mankind, even Irick.
"The desire for vengeance — that's all the death penalty is," he said. "But with time and reflection you come to realize the truthfulness of that old proverb: Two wrongs don't make a right."
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the name of Paula Dyer.