Tennessee executes man for first time since 2009

Published: Aug. 10, 2018 at 6:31 PM EDT
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More than three decades after 7-year-old Paula Dyer was raped and killed in Knoxville, the man convicted of the crimes — Billy Ray Irick — has been executed.

Irick was put to death by lethal injection Thursday night at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville. He was pronounced dead at 7:48 p.m. It was the first time the state of Tennessee has applied the death penalty in nine years.

After more than three decades on death row, this was his sixth scheduled execution date. He ultimately spent more of his life on death row than he did outside a cell.

WVLT News anchor Brittany Tarwater was one of seven state-required witnesses. These witnesses were selected through a lottery. Their responsibility was to ensure the lethal injection process was done properly, according to state law.

After passing through several security checkpoints, where cars were searched and dogs sniffed the perimeter, Brittany and other media were escorted to an empty prison parking lot. Only media, invited persons, the victim's family and Tennessee Department of Corrections and Tennessee Highway Patrol personnel were allowed in this space.

Protestors and supporters of capital punishment were screened by security but taken to the opposite end of the prison.

THP helicopters circled the property and officers on horseback patrolled the area.

At approximately 6 p.m. CDT media witnesses were escorted into the prison through the two walls of barbed wire fence that wrapped the building and inspected again by security.

Once cleared, media witnesses, Knox County Sheriff J.J. Jones, Irick's attorney Gene Shiles and Tennessee Deputy Attorney General Scott Sutherland were escorted into a waiting room.

Shiles said Irick had been "stoic" in the days leading up to Thursday. That he "wasn't angry or blaming anyone."

In this room media received a notepad and two sharpened pencils. They were asked not to bring any recording devices, including cell phones and watches.

"You guys ready?" An officer asked.

At 6:43 p.m. the group walked through a large room and into a smaller one that had three rows of red chairs facing a large window broken into four panels. The curtain on the other side of the window was closed.

The lights in the room were turned off and the door was shut.

Occasionally there were shuffling noises on the other sides on the walls. Paula's family were in a similar room adjacent to the media witness room.

Two more men entered the room at 7:08 p.m. It appeared one of them is a chaplain.

At 7:12 p.m., Shiles left the room. He returned 13 minutes later and whispered to media that he kissed Irick's forehead and that he'd seen the IVs be admitted into Irick's arms.

The curtains were opened at 7:26 p.m. Irick was already laid on the gurney wearing a cream colored shirt and matching pants with black socks. His body was covered by several straps. His hands were taped down by his side. He was looking at the ceiling.

Warden Tony Mays and another man, both wearing black suits, were the only other people in the room. The team that would push the injection was behind the back wall that has a small door with space for the IV tubes to run through. Their identities are known to as few people as possible.

"Do you have any last words?" Warden Mays asked Irick at 7:27 p.m.

"No," Irick appeared to sigh. "Well, I just want to say I'm really sorry. And that- that's it."

The warden gave the signal to start the injection of midazolam by wiping his own face with his own hand.

Irick closed his eyes at 7:28 p.m. They wouldn't open again.

A minute later he started snoring. This would continue for five minutes.

Mays conducted the standard consciousness test. Mays touched Irick's eyes and called his name twice loudly before shaking his right shoulder.

Irick did not respond to any of it.

After the test the small door in the back wall opened again. This is likely when the second drug of vecuronium bromide was administered.

At 7:37 p.m., it appeared Irick took his final breath. His face slowly turned a shade of purple.

At 7:40 p.m., the small door in the wall opened again. This is likely when the third drug of potassium chloride was administered.

The blinds were closed by the men in the suits at 7:46 p.m.

"The time of death is 7:48," a voice said over the PA. "That concludes the execution of Billy Ray Irick. Please exit at this time."

Paula's family did not speak to media. They left the grounds together in a black van.

After the execution, Sheriff Jones told media he chose to be there "for the victim, Paula Dyer. And for the citizens of Knox County, the same citizens who elected me and the same citizens who sentenced him to death."