Knoxville murderer Billy Irick is dead by lethal injection

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP/WVLT) - Billy Ray Irick, who was sentenced to death for the rape and murder of 7-year-old Paula Dyer 32 years ago, is now dead.

Irick was killed by lethal injection at the Riverbend Maximum Security Insitution. He was pronounced dead at 7:48 Central Standard Time.

According to witnesses, the lethal injection began at 7:26 Central Standard Time. At 7:27, Irick gave his last words.

"I just want to say I'm really sorry. And that, that's it."

On Thursday around 3 p.m. the U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan denied to hear Irick's case.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a dissenting opinion, saying Irick could feel pain during his execution.

"If the drug indeed fails, the consequences for Irick will be extreme: Although the midazolam may temporarily render Irick unconscious, the onset of pain and suffocation will rouse him. And it may do so just as the paralysis sets in, too late for him to alert bystanders that his execution has gone horribly (if predictably) wrong," Sotomayor wrote in her 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, 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 a result," Sotomayor continued in her dissent. "If the law permits this execution to go forward
in spite of the horrific final minutes that Irick may well experience, then we have stopped being a civilized nation and accepted barbarism. I dissent."

READ MORE: Justice Sotomayor's dissenting opinion

Days before his execution was set to take place, Irick's attorneys asked the U.S. Supreme Court for a stay of execution after the Tennessee Supreme Court and governor decided against a delay.

The state of Tennessee responded to the stay of execution sent to the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday, saying the request should be denied because Irick's Eighth Amendment claim is time-barred and procedurally defaulted. It also stated there's no exceptional circumstances warranting a stay of execution.

Irick's attorneys detailed evidence of "severe mental illness and psychotic disordered" that "grossly impairs his ability to make decisions, to plan and to control impulses."

"He was psychotic at the time of the offense and in the days leading up to then, chasing a school-aged girl with a machete down a Knoxville public street in broad daylight with the explanation that he 'didn’t like her looks,'" Irick's reply reads. "The people with whom he was living noted that Billy was frequently 'talking with the devil,' 'hearing voices,' and 'taking instructions from the devil.'”

Tennessee Attorney General Herbert H. Slatery III released a statement following the execution, stating;

"The death penalty is constitutional and it is the law of the State of Tennessee. It has taken decades and multiple court hearings, but justice was finally served for the murder and aggravated rape of 7-year-old Paula Dyer. Justice was delayed too long for this little girl and her family. I hope tonight’s lawful execution in some way eases the heartache Paula’s family has lived with and brings a degree of closure to a chapter of their lives that has been indescribably difficult.”

On Tuesday, WVLT's Ted Hall talked to Congressman Jimmy Duncan, who was the judge that sentenced Irick to death back in the 80's.

"The facts of this case are one of the extremely rare cases that justify a death sentence," said Duncan. "There are a very tiny percentage of cases that where the death penalty is the only appropriate punishment, and I think this case is one of them."

In a filing Tuesday, federal public defender Kelley Henry and attorney Carl Gene Shiles Jr. wrote that there should be a stay of Irick's scheduled lethal injection Thursday while a challenge of the state's protocol continues on appeal.

On Monday night at 11:30 p.m., Irick was officially moved to "death watch," the three-day period prior to an execution in which strict guidelines are in place to keep the inmate safe.

Over the course of this decades-long case, all of Mr. Irick’s subsequent efforts to escape his conviction and death sentence in state and federal courts were unsuccessful.

The case has dragged on through numerous appeals, beginning in 1988, and then again in 1998, 2009, 2011, and 2013.

After his sentence of death was upheld and scheduled for Oct. 2014, Irick's attorney and the legal defense of other death row inmates challenged the constitutionality of the newly adopted single drug lethal injection protocol.

After several challenges and a change to a three drug lethal injection protocol, the court finally ruled at the conclusion of a ten day trial on July 26 of this year against Irick. All motions to vacate his execution since that date have been denied.

On Monday, Governor Bill Haslam announced he would not intervene in the planned execution of Irick.

It will be Tennessee's first execution since 2009 and is scheduled for Aug. 9.

“After careful consideration, I am declining to intervene in the case of Billy Ray Irick, who was convicted and sentenced to death in 1986 by a Knox County jury for the murder and aggravated rape of 7-year-old Paula Dyer," said Gov. Haslem. "Irick requests clemency based upon his mental health status at the time the crime was committed. However, Irick was examined by a mental health expert and ruled competent to stand trial. The jury heard evidence regarding Irick’s mental health during sentencing, and state and federal courts, including the Tennessee Supreme Court and the Supreme Court of the United States, have reviewed and upheld the jury’s verdict and sentence on 17 different occasions, 11 of which occurred after additional evidence emerged years after the trial regarding his behavior in the weeks leading up to the offense. Both state and federal courts have ruled that the additional evidence does not undermine the jury’s verdict or warrant a new trial."

On top of the Governor's decision to not intervene in the case, the defense's latest motion, filed Friday, August 3, was denied by the state Supreme Court.

After a round of back-and-forth appeals between the defense and the state, the defense responded to the state's motion that Irick's execution should continue as planned, saying that the drugs cause pain and Irick shouldn't be subject to that.

Irick's attorneys first filed a motion to delay his execution on July 30, citing an appeal of the lethal injection combination of compounded Midazolam, vecuronium bromide, and compounded potassium chloride. An appeal of this combination was filed July 5, and although a judge upheld the state’s use of controversial drugs to execute inmates after a challenge by 33 inmates on death row on Thursday, this new motion states the judgement fails to engage with the the plaintiff's proof.

The state responded to the motion with a 66--page document stating that the motion should be denied.

"The jury convicted Irick of the first-degree-murder and aggravated rape of a seven-year-old child in 1986," The document reads. "Now, thirty-two years later, there is no reason not to permit the State of Tennessee to 'execute its moral judgement in [this] case' and to provide justice to the victims of Irick's crimes."

"Absent a stay from this Court, Mr. Irick will be denied his right to appeal and executed under a protocol using compounded Midazolam and compounded potassium chloride," the motion reads. "Only one other state (Virginia) has used this protocol. This Court's precedent demands a full state court adjudication, including the right to appeal, before an inmate can be executed under a new execution protocol."

Irick's lawyers filed a response to the state's motion on Friday, saying the state's pleading is "factually and legally wrong"

"The experts were questioned about this protocol," the filing reads. "They testified that the vecuronium bromide was not necessary to bring about the death of the inmate and caused significant additional terror because of the inmate's experiencing the sensation of being unable to breathe."

The defense cited evidence of autopsies that showed 85 percent of inmates executed using midazolam showed fluid buildup around the lungs that likely "left them awake, sensate, and experiencing the sensations of drowning."

Irick completed the standard three-tier appeals process which triggered an execution date under the Rules of this Court. So far, three execution dates have come and gone while Irick has challenged the state's lethal injection protocols.

WVLT's Brittany Tarwater will be at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville to cover the events of the day if it proceeds as scheduled. Irick was convicted of raping and murdering a seven-year-old girl in 1985.

The Tennessee Alliance for the Severe Mental Illness Exclusion is calling for extended exemptions from the death penalty for people with severe mental illness, pointing to Irick as an example.

Federal public defender Kelley Henry, one of the lawyers representing the 33 inmates, said the plaintiffs will appeal.

In his ruling, Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle said the inmates failed to meet two necessary bars, The Tennessean reported. Lyle ruled the lawyers didn’t prove that there is a substantially less painful means to carry out the execution or that the drugs the state plans to use would cause the inmate to be tortured to death.

“Although dreadful and grim, it is the law that while surgeries should be pain-free, there is no constitutional requirement for that with executions,” Lyle wrote, echoing an argument made by attorneys for the state.

Attorneys for the state and the inmates concluded a nearly two-week trial Tuesday over the new lethal injection procedure.

Tennessee’s first execution since 2009 is scheduled for Aug. 9.

The state had used pentobarbital, a barbiturate, but manufacturers have largely stopped selling the drug to anyone using it for executions.

The state adopted a new lethal injection protocol in January that called for a three-drug procedure.

The inmates filed suit in February. They did not argue against the death penalty but focused on the use of midazolam.

Experts who testified on the inmates’ behalf said midazolam is often ineffective, leaving people awake and aware of the acidic poison that kills them, using examples from executions across the country.