NASHVILLE, TN — The state of Tennessee executed its first prisoner since 2009 on Thursday, when it ended the life of convicted child rapist and killer Billy Ray Irick by way of lethal injection.
Irick, 59, had been on death row for 32 years following the 1985 rape and murder of Paula Dyer, a seven-year-old girl he was supposed to be babysitting.
Hours before being taken to the death chamber, the United States Supreme Court rejected Irick’s appeal for a stay of execution. From there, for his last meal, Irick ordered a deluxe cheeseburger, onion rings, and a Pepsi.
Journalists on hand said that the blinds to the execution room were opened at 7:26 p.m. Initially, Irick indicated he would have no last words, but then announced:
“I just want to say I’m really sorry and that, that’s it.”
After speaking, Irick took his place on the gurney, where injected a fatal cocktail of drugs into his system. He reportedly fell asleep, coughed, choked, and turned purple before being pronounced dead at 7:48 p.m.
In addition to seven reporters, other witnesses to the execution included members of Paula Dyer’s family, Sheriff Jimmy “J.J.” Jones, Tennessee Deputy Attorney General Scott Sutherland, and Irick’s attorney, Gene Shiles. Paula Dyer’s loved ones opted not to talk to the media.
Addressing the press, Sheriff Jones said:
“I’m here first and foremost for the victim Paula Dyer and for the citizens of Knox County, the same citizens that convicted him and sentenced him to death. I wanted to hear some more from him. You’re always looking for that explanation.”
In a statement, Tennessee Attorney General Herbert H. Slatery III added:
“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.”
The crime for which Irick paid the ultimate price horrified the public. On the night of April 15, 1985, Irick was asked by family friend Kathy Jeffers to babysit her daughter Paula Dyer and her five other children after the mom left for work at 10 p.m.
Sometime before midnight, Irick held seven-year-old Paula down while the other kids screamed, then raped and sodomized her before choking her to death.
After Jeffers returned home to find Paula barely alive, she rushed the girl to a local hospital, where a doctor worked for 45 minutes to revive her — to no avail.
Paula Dyer’s official cause of death was asphyxiation, although she also suffered severe blunt force trauma to the head and injuries that resulted from the sexual abuse.
Some voices rose in protest against Irick’s execution. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a strong dissent from the majority ruling, invoking a recent lawsuit filed by Tennessee inmates alleging that the chemicals used in fatal injections resulted in torture.
In addition, following Pope Francis’s recent declaration that capital punishment is “inadmissible” under any circumstances, three Catholic bishops in Tennessee wrote to Governor Bill Haslam, stating that “the death penalty contributes to the growing disrespect for human life.”
Irick’s execution was the first such procedure in Tennessee since 2009, when prisoner Cecil Johnson was put to death for killing three people during a convenience store robbery in 1980.