Tennessee has carried out the execution of a man condemned for the 1985 rape and murder of a seven-year-old girl, marking the first time the state has applied the death penalty in nearly a decade.
- Irick spent more than three decades on death row
- The lethal injection included the drugs midazolam, vecuronium bromide and potassium chloride
- Justice Sotomayor called the cocktail "the chemical equivalent to being burned alive"
Inmate Billy Ray Irick, 59 — convicted in 1986 in the death of Paula Dyer, a Knoxville girl he was babysitting — was the first to receive a controversial new three-drug lethal cocktail.
Irick had been a boarder in the home where the girl lived with her mother, stepfather and siblings.
Irick, who had spent more than three decades on death row, was put to death at the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville, Department of Corrections spokeswoman Tylee Tracer said.
The lethal injection was comprised 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.
'Slowly tortured to death'
Irick became the 15th inmate executed this year in the United States and the first in Tennessee since 2009.
Executions in Tennessee had been put on hold for years due in large part to lawsuits from death row inmates challenging the state's combination of lethal drugs and death chamber protocols.
Irick and other death row inmates had been part of a lawsuit that sought to block use of Tennessee's lethal injection mix.
The valium-like drug midazolam has been used in executions in other states, a few of which were botched.
Lawyers for the inmates argued midazolam does not achieve the level of unconsciousness required for surgery and is unsuitable for lethal injections.
On Monday, the state Supreme Court had refused to block Irick's execution, saying the lawsuit involving the execution drugs was not likely to succeed.
That case is continuing in a state appeals court.
Casting the lone dissenting vote in the Supreme Court's decision denying Irick a reprieve, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said that if midazolam does not work, an inmate could suffer harm in violation of constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishments.
"If the law permits this execution to go forward in spite of the horrific final minutes that Irick may well experience, then we have stopped being a civilised nation and accepted barbarism," she wrote.
In previous statements, Ms Sotomayor has called midazolam "the chemical equivalent of being burned alive".
She has compared the use of midazolam to being "slowly tortured to death, or actually burned at the stake".
'I just want to say I'm really sorry and that, that's it'
The blinds between a witness room and the execution chamber were opened at 7:26pm and Irick could be seen through glass windows strapped to a gurney, an IV stuck in his arm and leading back through the wall to a room hidden by a mirror-window, where someone administered the drugs.
Asked if he had any last words, Irick at first appeared to sigh and say "no". But then he said, "I just want to say I'm really sorry and that, that's it".
Witnesses said Irick coughed, huffed and made choking sounds, taking deep breaths as his face turned dark purple.
He was pronounced dead at 7:48pm.
Federal public defender Kelley Henry said at trial that inmates were tortured to death, feeling like they were suffocating, drowning and utterly confused.
Ms Henry said in a statement on Thursday night (local time) that witness observations suggest the midazolam did not render Irick fully unconscious, and those accounts were "indicative of pulmonary edema" from the drug.
His lawyers had argued that he has suffered from psychosis for his entire life and putting him to death would violate legal norms barring the execution of people with severe mental disorders or disabilities.
Tennessee state prosecutors said Irick knew what he was doing was wrong, was competent to be executed and did not properly raise the mental illness claim in state court.
Once Irick was dead, Attorney-General Herbert Slatery said justice was delayed too long for the little girl killed and her family.
"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," Mr Slatery said in the statement.
About 50 protesters were outside the prison, while others who support the death penalty also showed up as authorities kept the two groups apart.
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