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Billy Ray Irick's was executed by the state of Tennessee by lethal injection. Nashville Tennessean

Death row inmate Billy Ray Irick died at 7:48 p.m. CDT Thursday after Tennessee prison officials administered a lethal dose of toxic chemicals. He was 59. 

His execution, the first in Tennessee since 2009, comes after his 1986 conviction in Knox County for the rape and murder of 7-year-old Paula Dyer

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Witnesses to the execution included members of Paula's family, Knox County Sheriff Jimmy "J.J." Jones, Tennessee Deputy Attorney General Scott Sutherland, Irick's attorney Gene Shiles and seven members of the media.

Irick is the 133rd person put to death by Tennessee since 1916. Before Irick, all but six executions occurred before 1961.

Moments before officials began administering the fatal doses, Irick, held down by straps over his chest and arms, muttered his final words: "I just want to say I'm really sorry. And that ... that's it."

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The execution began later than scheduled. The blinds to the execution room lifted at 7:26 p.m., 16 minutes later than expected.

Irick, with nearly shoulder-length hair, a scraggly beard and dressed in a white prison jumpsuit and black socks, was coughing, choking and gasping for air. His face turned dark purple as the lethal drugs took over.

"I never thought for one moment that it would come to this," Shiles said inside the prison before the execution began. "I never did."

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Witnesses entered the execution viewing chamber at 6:43 p.m., where prison officials turned out the lights until the blinds to the glass were lifted.

"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," Jones said. "I wanted to hear some more from him. You’re always looking for that explanation.”

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Shiles and Sutherland left the viewing room at 7:12 p.m., presumably to go into the execution chamber and observe Irick's IV being administered.

When the two men returned to the observation room around 7:25 p.m., Shiles told witnesses that he kissed Irick and touched him.

Moments later, after the blinds lifted and Irick made his statement, the administration of a combination of powerful and deadly drugs commenced.

Family members of Paula watched in a separate room off the execution chamber that was visible to other witnesses, including the media witnesses. One man leaned up close to the glass and bit his nail. A woman had her face pressed almost to the window.

First the executioner injected Irick with midazolam, a drug intended to render Irick unconscious. 

After Riverbend Warden Tony Mays determined Irick was unconscious, the executioner injected vecuronium bromide and potassium chloride, drugs intended to stop Irick's lungs and heart. 

Both the man and the woman leaned back as it appeared Irick had stopped breathing.

Death penalty around the nation

Around the country, death row offenders have writhed, screamed, groaned and gasped as lethal injection drugs take longer than expected to work — or don't work at all. 

At least twice in Ohio, the state had to call off executions after prison staff could not find a viable vein for the intravenous injection of the drugs. 

Irick was a heavy-set man. Tennessee does not change its execution protocol depending on the body type of the condemned. But midazolam has a different effect on different people. 

Before his death, Irick ate his last meal: a burger, onion rings and a Pepsi soft drink. Shiles said earlier Thursday that Irick was in good spirits and understood he would be executed. 

Family of Paula Dyer among witnesses inside prison

Irick lived with Paula Dyer's mother and stepfather, Kathy and Kenny Jeffers, in 1985. Although the family allowed the then-26-year-old Irick to live with them for some time, years after the crime they reported he exhibited signs of mental illness. 

Kathy Jeffers was among the small group of Paula's family members seen quietly coming and going from Riverbend Maximum Security Institute on Thursday evening, walking out after the execution with a tissue in her left hand.

She and other family members chose not to speak at a news conference held afterward outside the prison.

Jeffers had warned her husband she didn't want to leave the children with Irick the night of Paula's killing, that she'd seen him muttering to himself in a half-drunk rage on the porch before she left for work.

Court records show the family reported Irick heard voices and was "taking instructions from the devil." He also reportedly chased after a young girl while carrying a machete in Knoxville in the days proceeding Paula's death. 

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Billy Ray Irick was sentenced to death for the rape and murder of Paula Dyer in 1986. Decades of appeals later, he's still on death Paula's family still can't rest. WBIR

On April 15, 1985, Irick called Kenny Jeffers to say Paula would not wake up. 

Her parents found Paula dead on their bed. An autopsy showed she died of asphyxiation. Irick initially tried to hitchhike out of town, but was caught by police the day after Paula's death. 

Thursday night following the execution, Tennessee Attorney General Herbert H. Slatery III released a statement declaring that "justice was finally served" for the murder and rape of Paula.

"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.”

Irick's death carried out Thursday after U.S. Supreme Court denied request

Before and during his 32 years on death row, Irick repeatedly attempted to convince courts he was too mentally ill to be executed or that the drugs set for use in a lethal injection would violate his constitutional right not to be tortured to death. 

While courts did delay his execution several times, most recently in 2014, no court decided to weigh in to prevent his death this time. 

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People came out to the site of the execution of Billy Ray Irick Andrew Nelles and Holly Meyer

"I thought somebody would actually look at the facts," Shiles said Thursday just before the execution, referring to evidence supporting Irick's mental illness. "I was wrong."

Roughly five hours before Irick's death, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan denied his request to delay his execution. But fellow Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor blasted the decision not to delay the execution while the state reviewed its lethal injection method. 

"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," Sotomayor wrote in her dissent. 

"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." 

Thursday afternoon, Catholic bishops in Nashville and Knoxville noted Pope Francis' recent rebuke of the death penalty to condemn Irick's execution. 

"The state has the obligation to protect all people and to impose just punishment for crimes, but in the modern world the death penalty is not required for either of these ends," wrote Bishop Richard F. Stika of Knoxville and J. Mark Spalding of Nashville. 

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Appeal continues against Tennessee's lethal injection protocol 

It's unclear what impact Irick's execution will have on a pending legal challenge to the state's lethal injection protocol. 

 

Irick joined 32 other death row inmates in a lawsuit arguing the three drugs Tennessee uses for lethal injections would violate their constitutional right to not be tortured to death. Experts at a trial in Davidson County argued the first drug, midazolam, does not always work as intended to render an offender unconscious and unable to feel pain. 

If the midazolam does not work, then the second and third drugs will cause pain similar to being burned alive and drowned, argued experts and attorneys for the death row offenders. 

Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle agreed the condemned may feel pain as he or she dies, but noted there is no legal right to a painless death. 

She rejected the inmates' lawsuit, prompting an appeal to the Tennessee Supreme Court. Citing a procedural bar for the first time, a majority of the state's high court determined the inmates had a low chance at succeeding and therefore Irick's execution should not be delayed. 

"By applying the law and requiring satisfaction of this legal standard, we are not 'rush(ing) to execute' Mr. Irick. In fact, this suggestion is astonishing, actually, given that Mr. Irick was convicted and sentenced 32 years ago and has obtained multiple stays over the years," the four-member majority wrote in a footnote of their opinion. 

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Anti death group gathers at Fisk chapel to hold a vigil Mariah Timms, USA Today Network-Tennessee

In a relatively unusual move, Justice Sharon Lee dissented. 

"The harm to Mr. Irick of an unconstitutional execution is irreparable," Lee wrote in a forceful break with the majority. "Yet the harm to the State from briefly delaying the execution until after appellate review is minimal, if any."

Immediately after the state Supreme Court's decision, Gov. Bill Haslam also announced he would not intervene

"My role is not to be the 13th juror or the judge or to impose my personal views, but to carefully review the judicial process to make sure it was full and fair," Haslam said in a news release earlier this week. "Because of the extremely thorough judicial review of all of the evidence and arguments at every stage in this case, clemency is not appropriate.”

In January, the Tennessee Supreme Court scheduled an Oct. 11 execution for Edmond Zagorski and a Dec. 11 death date for David Earl Miller. 

Adam Tamburin contributed to this story.

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