Gray clouds swept across the sky Thursday afternoon as Kathy Jeffers walked to the front door of Riverbend Maximum Security Institution.
Family members circled around her as they made their way inside, their faces drawn into weary frowns. A grim pilgrimage had brought them to the only state prison in Tennessee with an execution chamber.
It was the end of a legal battle that began in 1985, when family friend Billy Ray Irick was charged with raping and killing Jeffers’ 7-year-old daughter, Paula Dyer.
After 33 years, they had come to watch Irick die for his crime.
Related: What happened in and outside Riverbend prison as Billy Ray Irick was put to death
Minutes after they entered the prison, Irick’s criminal defense attorney Gene Shiles followed them along the same concrete path. It was a trip he never thought he’d have to make — one to say goodbye.
It had been years since Irick exhausted his criminal appeals in an attempt to avoid the death penalty. But Shiles and a team of federal public defenders hoped an ongoing challenge to the state’s lethal injection protocol would block Irick’s death a little while longer.
In a lawsuit filed earlier this year, which is still making its way through an appeal, they challenged the state’s new lethal injection protocol, saying it would fail to shield Irick from pain so powerful it is forbidden by the Constitution.
Their argument, endorsed by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor hours before the execution, was that Irick would be tortured to death.
Their arguments fell on deaf ears.
So Irick was wheeled into the execution chamber in a cream colored shirt and cotton pants. As the warden gave the signal to begin, Irick said he was sorry.
Twenty minutes later he was dead.
Exactly what Irick experienced in that time may never be known. But his death, intended to provide closure for a grieving family, is certain to fuel a fierce national debate surrounding the drugs used to kill him, and if they amount to state-sanctioned torture.
‘I just want to say I’m really sorry’
By 7 p.m., the execution was off protocol.
The attorney for the condemned and a deputy attorney general are supposed to be in the execution chamber at that point, watching prison staff insert IVs into both arms of the man about to die.
But at 7:10 p.m., the suggested start time for the execution, Shiles and Deputy Attorney General Scott Sutherland were still sitting in the dark in a witness room. After Sutherland reminded prison staff he is allowed to be in the room, he and Shiles were taken away. Returning at 7:26 p.m., Shiles sat down in his red chair inches away from the witness room glass and leaned over to reporters.
Shiles said he kissed Irick’s forehead and touched his arm. Then he saw prison staff insert the IVs into Irick’s arms.
As soon as Shiles stopped talking, the curtains were opened, showing Irick strapped down on a gurney roughly 10 feet away.
Faltering at first, Irick initially declined to offer any last words. Riverbend Warden Tony Mays waved his own hand over his own face, the signal for the executioners to start pushing the plunger of the first syringe filled with a chemical that is supposed to render Irick unable to feel pain.
Immediately after Mays’ hand stopped moving, Irick looked at him.
“I just want to say I’m really sorry. And that — that’s it.”
Within one minute, Irick closed his eyes. He would never reopen them.
Descriptions of execution ‘raise troubling questions,’ lawyer says
At roughly 7:30 p.m., the snoring began.
The sound quickly became louder, growing into a rhythmic, deep sound that pushed the gray and black hair of Irick’s mustache away from his mouth.
Irick’s attorneys say the snoring sound is a potential sign that the controversial drug in the three-drug protocol may not be working.
The first drug, midazolam, was supposed to ensure Irick was unconscious and couldn’t feel pain. However, there are times when the drug can make someone appear to be unconscious, when in reality they can still feel pain but are unable to respond.
That means, if Irick was not insensate — unable to feel pain — the second and third drugs would cause a pain similar to drowning and being burned alive.
He didn’t thrash, scream or cry. But the snoring, coughing and other noises coming from his mouth and throat were potential signs of agony, said Kelley Henry, a federal public defender who represented Irick and continues to represent death row inmates.
“Among those descriptions were that Mr. Irick ‘gulped for an extended period of time,’ was ‘choking,’ ‘gasping,’ ‘coughing,’ and that ‘his stomach was moving up and down.’ Witnesses described movement, including movement of the head, after the consciousness check,” Henry said in a statement after Irick’s death.
“This means that the second and third drugs were administered even though Mr. Irick was not unconscious. The descriptions also raise troubling questions about the State’s attempt to mask the signs of consciousness including by taping down his hands which would have prevented the witnesses from observing the failure of the midazolam.”
Irick’s hands were strapped to the gurney using a brown tape.
The execution also took longer than average, according to an analysis of death records produced during the inmates’ lethal injection challenge.
The analysis found an average execution length of 13.55 minutes. Irick’s execution took at least 20 minutes.
All together, Henry said she thought testimony from media witnesses indicates Irick may have suffered pulmonary edema, or fluid in the lungs. Medical experts say it can feel like drowning.
After Irick’s death, protocol requires the state to take his body to the state medical examiner’s office for an autopsy before the body is released. Funeral arrangements were not immediately known.
A Davidson County judge, the Tennessee Supreme Court, a local federal court and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan all declined to stop Irick’s execution. But state Supreme Court Justice Sharon Lee and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote scathing opinions dissenting from their colleagues.
The U.S. Supreme Court has allowed executions to proceed with midazolam in the past. But hours before Tennessee pushed toxic drugs into Irick’s body, Sotomayor said if the state used midazolam in Irick’s death “then we stopped being a civilized nation and accepted barbarism.”
‘You’re always looking for that explanation’
Knox County Sheriff Jimmy “J.J.” Jones was still a rookie deputy at the Knox County Sheriff’s Office in 1985 when the sweet-faced, 7-year-old Paula Dyer was raped, sodomized and slain.
On Thursday, as one of his last official acts before he steps down as sheriff on Sept. 1, Jones donned his patrol uniform and made the 200-mile trek to Riverbend to watch her killer die.
He said he didn’t want to attend. He’s never witnessed an execution before. But Jones said he felt compelled to do so.
“I’m here first and foremost for the victim, Paula Dyer, and for the citizens of Knox County — the same citizens who convicted (Irick) and sentenced him to death.”
Jones stood in the back of the witness chamber, nervously shifting from one foot to the other, as the curtains raised on the execution chamber. When the warden asked Irick if he had any last words, Jones craned his neck forward in anticipation.
He said later he was disappointed at what he heard — a one-line apology.
“I wanted to hear some more from him,” Jones said after the execution. “You’re always looking for that explanation.”
Paula Dyer’s family, including her mother, was seated in a separate witness chamber.
One of her brothers could be seen leaning toward the glass window as Irick’s breathing grew labored. The brother bit a fingernail as he watched and then slumped back in his seat. The profile of a woman could be seen to his left, her face nearly pressed against the glass.
The family left without speaking to the media. They’ve been reluctant to talk publicly about their grief and their feelings about Irick’s execution, but Jeffers has testified that she was worried about leaving her children with Irick on the night of her daughter’s death. He was drunk and angry, she said, but she had to go to work, and her estranged husband promised he would check on the children. He didn’t.
‘A tremendous mental handicap’
The Rev. Joe Ingle, who ministers to inmates at Riverbend every week, thinks the state failed Irick as a child, when he began to show symptoms of psychosis.
“Where was the state of Tennessee then? Nowhere. He had received no help at all,” Ingle said. “That’s why this terrible tragedy happened where Paula was murdered, which we are all sorrowful about.”
Ingle, a United Church of Christ minister, visited with Irick the week before his execution.
Irick gave Ingle three biblical paintings he made while serving time on Tennessee’s death row. They depicted the crucifixion of Jesus, the removal of Christ from the tomb and his ascension in heaven.
“Here’s a guy who had a tremendous mental handicap who really tried to overcome it through his art,” said Ingle. “It’s just really sad that we have sunk so low to take someone this impaired and torture him to death.”
Shiles, Irick’s criminal defense attorney, argues his client’s mental illness was never truly addressed by a court. While Gov. Bill Haslam and others say courts did weigh Irick’s mental capacity, Shiles thought surely some authority would recognize Irick’s delusions and psychosis — the Jeffers family said in affidavits Irick said he was “talking to the devil” around the time of Paula’s death — and determine he could not be culpable for his actions.
“I never thought for one moment that it would come to this. I never did,” said Shiles, leaning against the robin’s-egg blue wall of a waiting room within Riverbend roughly an hour before Irick died.
“I thought somebody would actually look at the facts. I was wrong.”
As the sun set and the sky deepened into a dark shade of blue, Shiles walked out of Riverbend and drove home to Chattanooga.
Paula Dyer’s family congregated outside the prison door for a few minutes, another circle forming around her mother Kathy Jeffers.
Prison officials had told reporters gathered outside the family might speak publicly after watching Irick die.
Instead, the subdued group quietly loaded into a black van that drove down a winding road and off the prison grounds.