Tennessee executes its first inmate in nearly a decade

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee carried out the execution Thursday of a man condemned for the 1985 rape and murder of a 7-year-old girl, marking the first time the state has applied the death penalty since 2009.

Inmate Billy Ray Irick, 59, received a three-drug injection at a maximum-security prison in Nashville and was pronounced dead at 7:48 p.m. local time, authorities said in an emailed statement. He was convicted in 1986 in the death of Paula Dyer, a Knoxville girl he was babysitting.

The U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way Thursday afternoon for the execution, denying Irick's request for a stay. But Justice Sonia Sotomayor issued a blistering dissent, recounting details from a recent state court trial of a case brought by inmates contesting Tennessee's execution drugs.

Billy Ray Irick executed in Tennessee

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Billy Ray Irick executed in Tennessee

 In this Aug. 16, 2010 file photo, Billy Ray Irick, on death row for raping and killing a 7-year-old girl in 1985, appears in a Knox County criminal courtroom in Knoxville, Tenn., arguing that he's too mentally ill to be executed by the state. The Tennessee Supreme Court has refused to stay Thursday's Aug. 9, 2018, scheduled execution of the convicted child killer while the state's new lethal injection protocol continues to be challenged on appeal. The order brings Tennessee within days of killing Irick with a three-drug cocktail, barring some last-minute change. (Michael Patrick/The Knoxville News Sentinel via AP, File)

Anti-death penalty protesters gather outside of the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution before the execution of Billy Ray Irick in Nashville, Tenn., Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018. Irick was convicted in 1986 in the death of Paula Dyer, a 7-year-old Knoxville girl he was babysitting. (Andrew Nelles/The Tennessean via AP)

Kathy Jeffers, second from left, mother of victim Paula Dyer, arrives with relatives and friends for the execution of Billy Ray Irick at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville on Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018. Irick is scheduled to receive a three-drug injection Thursday evening at the maximum-security prison in Nashville. He was convicted in 1986 in the death of Dyer, a Knoxville girl he was babysitting. (Shelley Mays/The Tennessean via AP)

Death row inmate Billy Ray Irick, appears in a booking photo provided by the Tennessee Department of Corrections, August 8, 2018. Tennessee Department of Corrections/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. THIS PICTURE WAS PROCESSED BY REUTERS TO ENHANCE QUALITY. AN UNPROCESSED VERSION HAS BEEN PROVIDED SEPARATELY
John Boylan of Christ the Prophet Church in Spring Hill, Tenn, holds a candle as protesters gather outside of the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution against the execution of inmate Billy Ray Irick in Nashville, Tenn., Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018. Irick, 59, is scheduled to receive a three-drug injection Thursday evening at the maximum-security prison. He was convicted in 1986 in the death of Paula Dyer, a Knoxville girl he was babysitting. (Andrew Nelles/The Tennessean via AP)
Pro-death penalty supporter Rick Laude of Nashville speaks to the media about why he feels the death penalty was necessary outside of the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution before the execution of inmate Billy Ray Irick in Nashville, Tenn., Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018. Irick, 59, is scheduled to receive a three-drug injection Thursday evening at the maximum-security prison. He was convicted in 1986 in the death of Paula Dyer, a Knoxville girl he was babysitting. (Andrew Nelles/The Tennessean via AP)
Anti-death penalty protesters hold candles as they gather outside of the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution before the execution of Billy Ray Irick in Nashville, Tenn., Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018. Irick was convicted in 1986 murder of Paula Dyer, a 7-year-old Knoxville girl he was babysitting. (Andrew Nelles/The Tennessean via AP)
Jon Warkentin, of Nashville, gathers with protesters outside the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution before the execution of Billy Ray Irick in Nashville, Tenn., Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018. Irick was convicted in 1986 in the death of Paula Dyer, a 7-year-old Knoxville girl he was babysitting. (Andrew Nelles/The Tennessean via AP)
Fr. John Boylan, of Christ the Prophet Church, in Spring Hill, Tenn, leads protesters in prayer outside of the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution before the execution of Billy Ray Irick in Nashville, Tenn., Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018. Irick was convicted in 1986 in the death of Paula Dyer, a 7-year-old Knoxville girl he was babysitting. (Andrew Nelles/The Tennessean via AP)
Death row inmate Billy Ray Irick appears in a booking photo provided by the Tennessee Department of Corrections, August 8, 2018. Tennessee Department of Corrections/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
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"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," Sotomayor wrote.

It was the first execution in Tennessee since December 2009, when inmate Cecil Johnson received a lethal injection for the killings of three people during a 1980 convenience store robbery in Nashville. Since then, the state has endured legal challenges and difficulties finding execution drugs including its previous one, pentobarbital. The state says drug makers stopped selling that barbiturate for lethal injections.

On Monday, the state Supreme Court had refused to block Irick's execution, saying the lawsuit filed by inmates involving the execution drugs wasn't likely to succeed. That case is continuing in a state appeals court.

In a ruling late last month, Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle wrote that attorneys for 33 death row inmates, including Irick, didn't prove that there is a substantially less painful means to carry out an execution or that the drugs the state planned on using would cause the inmate to be tortured to death.

Tennessee plans called for use of midazolam as a sedative, the muscle-relaxer vecuronium bromide and then potassium chloride to stop the heart. At question is whether midazolam is actually effective in rendering someone unconscious and unable to feel pain from the other two drugs. Federal public defender Kelley Henry said at trial that inmates were tortured to death, feeling like they were suffocating, drowning, and utterly confused.

Attorneys for the state have said the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the use of midazolam in a three-drug series.

In Nevada, the drug company Alvogen has sued to block use of midazolam in a stalled execution. Tennessee is one of 15 states siding with the state of Nevada against the company, though Tennessee is planning to use a version of the drug that is compounded, not directly purchased from a manufacturer.

Faith leaders and death penalty opponents led a protest rally Tuesday against Tennessee's execution plans for Irick. And last week, Pope Francis revealed new Catholic church teaching that deems the death penalty "inadmissible" under all circumstances.

Prior to the pope's emboldened stance against the death penalty, three Catholic bishops in Tennessee wrote Gov. Bill Haslam, telling him that "the death penalty contributes to the growing disrespect for human life."

Haslam declined on Monday to intervene in Irick's case.

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