Scheduled to die by lethal injection on Thursday, a Knoxville man convicted of rape and murder over 30 years ago, waits.

Billy Ray Irick was found guilty by a jury in 1986 for raping and murdering seven-year-old Paula Dyer at her Knoxville home. He was sentenced to death. 

Then, delays, execution stays, state supreme court appeals and what the Tennessee Supreme Court called, “exhaustion of all levels of appellate review.” 

The Crime

On the morning of April 15th, 1985, Irick fought with the Jeffers family. 

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“He said was gonna get even with my… Kenny, and Kathy. Cause he was mad because they had other babysitters and he used to babysit for them. I think he was mostly jealous…” said Paula’s grandmother in an interview with WATE 6 On Your Side Reporter Bruce Whittaker, just hours after her death, on April 15th, 1985. 

Later on the same day, Billy Ray Irick was asked to babysit Paula Dyer, her two brothers, and two others at the home, according to a WATE 6 On Your Side Reporter on the scene at the time. 

Irick, a family friend of Kathy and Kenny Jeffers, lived with the family and was a babysitter when needed for the family’s five children, if their parents were working. 

Paula, 7, was a Beaumont Elementary student. She lived with her family on Exeter Avenue in Knoxville. 

Details about what happened at the home, the rape and murder, and Irick’s arrest are given as part of a November 1988 Appeal, State v. Irick. Many details, citing witness testimony and trial evidence. 

Shortly after leaving the children at home with Irick, an appeal shows Paula’s mother, Kathy Jeffers, said she “felt uneasy” and asked her husband, Kenny, to check on the home. They were both at work. 

Before he was able to check, Irick called Jefffers at work, documents show he told Jeffers, “I can’t wake her up.” When Jeffers arrived home Paula, was on the floor with blood between her legs, according to court documents. 

Paula was taken to Children’s Hospital by her stepfather, Jeffers, where she was pronounced dead shortly after. 

Through exams at the hospital, evidence later showed the seven-year-old had been raped and suffocated through asphyxiation. 

Irick was nowhere to be found in the hours following his crimes. 

In her interview with WATE 6 On Your Side in April 1985, Paula’s grandmother pleaded with the public to find Irick. The Knoxville Police Department called on the public to do the same.

Irick was arrested late the next day. 

Sentenced to Death

In November 1986, a jury found Irick guilty of first-degree murder and two counts of aggravated rape. 

The judge was John Duncan Jr., Jimmy Duncan, now-U.S. Representative for Tennessee’s 2nd Congressional District. 

Witnesses included Paula’s step-father, Kenny; lead investigator, Donald Wiser; the officer who arrested Irick, Mike Parker; and an expert in clinical and anatomical pathology. 

Trial evidence showed the 7-year-old died from suffocation. Through physical exams at the hospital, as evidence, the murder was considered “especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel in that it involved torture or depravity of mind.” 

In closing statements, the prosecutor asked the jury to consider the death penalty:

 “Know this, ladies and gentlemen, if you give out the death sentence and it is carried out, you will never bear any risk from Billy Ray Irick. Not one other seven-year-old child will ever be at risk of him not one… We not only consider does the punishment meet the crime, and can we tolerate what this man did and the risk of further damage?” 

After a sentencing hearing, the jury found that Irick should be put to death by electrocution.

Life on Death Row 

First sentenced to death after his 1986 convictions for rape and murder, Irick’s date of execution has changed multiple times over the course of three decades. 

2010: The Tennessee Supreme Court said following Irick’s, “exhaustion of all levels of appellate review” Irick’s execution date was set for December 7, 2010.

2014: A stay, or delay, was granted because of claims Irick was mentally incompetent to be executed. 

His execution was rescheduled for October 7, 2014, only after affirming a trial court’s recommendation that Irick was mentally competent to be executed. 

2015: Irick’s execution was delayed again, after a filing by lawyers for Irick and other death row inmates claiming that the Tennessee Department of Corrections (TDOC) single-drug-lethal injection protocol using pentobarbital was unconstitutional. 

2017: However, in March 2017 the Tennessee Supreme Court upheld that the single-drug-lethal injection was constitutional. 

2018: Less than a year later, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case of the one-drug protocol. Irick’s execution was again rescheduled for Thursday, August 9, 2018. 

Around the same time, TDOC began using a new protocol: a three-drug lethal injection as an alternative method of execution. 

Irick and 32 other death row inmates filed a constitutional challenge to the three-drug protocol. 

A Davidson County judge ruled in July 2018 that lawyers for 33 death row inmates didn’t prove there’s a substantially less painful execution method or that the state’s planned drug cocktail would torture an inmate to death.

Days Before August Execution Date

The Tennessee Supreme Court refused to stay the August 9 scheduled execution, while the state’s new lethal injection protocol continues to be challenged on appeal.

In the Tennessee Supreme Court’s majority, justices asserted that the rules of the court require proving that the lawsuit challenging the lethal injection drugs is likely to succeed on appeal, but Irick’s attorney hasn’t done so. 

Three days before the planned execution date, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam declined to intervene in Irick’s execution. 

“I took an oath to uphold the law. Capital punishment is the law in Tennessee and was ordered in this case by a jury of Tennesseans and upheld by more than a dozen state and federal courts. 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. Because of the extremely thorough judicial review of all of the evidence and arguments at every stage in this case, clemency is not appropriate.”

Earlier on Monday, Tennessee’s Supreme Court refused to stay Irick’s execution while the state’s lethal injection protocol continues to be challenged on appeal.

Irick’s attorney asked the U.S. Supreme Court to grant a stay of execution on Tuesday morning.

Death Penalty in Tennessee 

Versions of capital punishment have been part of Tennessee’s state history since its inception, according to TDOC. 

Electrocution was the method of execution in 1916. Lethal injection was introduced in 1998 as a choice for offenders who committed crimes before January 1, 1999. Offenders who committed crimes before that date could also choose electrocution. 

There were no offenders sentenced to death between 1972-1978 because, at the time, the U.S. Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional. When it became legal again in 1978, most sitting on death row to 1960 had sentences commuted “mostly to life” according to TDOC. 

Irick would be the first Tennessee inmate executed since 2009. 

Offenders sentenced to death in modern day are typically housed in a separate unit at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution. 

What is Death Watch?

Death Watch is the three-day period before an offender is set to be executed to “maintain the security and control of a condemned offender and to maintain safe and orderly operations of the prison.”

The person on death row is moved to one of four cells adjacent to the execution chamber, according to TDOC, then the person is under 24-hour observation by correctional officers. The routine for the person changes, too, as well as the items they can have with them. Visitation is also limited. 

Regular meals are still provided, including a special meal on the day before the execution. 

Irick was moved to death watch Monday at 11:30 p.m., according to TDOC. 

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