Executed death row inmate in Tennessee choked and turned purple before he died

Reporters in attendance said Bill Ray Irick's death appeared torturous.

Billy Ray Irick was executed last night. His death was likely torturous. CREDIT: Scott Eisen/Getty Images
Billy Ray Irick was executed last night. His death was likely torturous. CREDIT: Scott Eisen/Getty Images

A man on death row, Billy Ray Irick, was executed by the state of Tennessee Thursday night, an execution that may have been torturous, according to witnesses in attendance.

Irick was executed using a three-drug cocktail. The first drug, Midazolam, is supposed to act as a painkiller. The second is a paralytic, and the third induces a heart attack.

But Midazolam might not be doing its job. In a number of recent executions, experts said the individual being executed was in serious pain, including one instance in Arizona when the individual appeared to be in agony for two hours despite having been administered the drug.

Considering that evidence, Irick’s lawyers appealed to the Supreme Court, which ruled earlier Thursday that Tennessee could move forward with the execution.


Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented. “If the law permits this execution to go forward in spite of the horrific final minutes [Irick is likely to experience], then we have stopped being a civilized nation and accepted barbarism,” she wrote.

There was indeed some evidence Thursday night that Irick was in pain, though it is hard to know for certain, considering the second drug in the cocktail paralyzes the person being executed.

As Nashville Scene reporter Steven Hale, who attended the execution, recounted later, the warden performed a consciousness check, shouting Irick’s name and pinching his neck before the second drug was administered.

“Irick did not appear to respond in any way,” Hale reported. “Around 2 minutes later, though, Irick jolted [and] made a choking/choking sound.”

A short while later, Irick’s face reportedly turned “almost purple.”

An AP reporter in attendance, Jonathan Matisse, recounted a similar scenario, stating that Irick “let out a cough or choking sound, as his face turned dark purple” before he died.

It was 32 years ago that Irick raped and murdered a 7-year-old child, Paula Dyer. As the Nashville Scene noted, Irick’s guilt is not in question, but advocates have raised questions about his mental health. He was first referred to a mental health facility at age six and had many violent outbursts as a child. According to his family, Irick reportedly heard “voices” and took “instructions from the devil.”


Before he was executed Thursday, Irick was asked if he had any final words, and after a pause, reportedly replied, “I just wanna say I’m really sorry and that — that’s it.”

Last December, a report from the Death Penalty Information Center concluded that there was significant evidence of mental illness, brain damage, intellectual disability, severe trauma, or possible innocence in nearly 90 percent of capital punishment executions in the United States.

Additionally, the report found that five of the 23 people executed by the state in 2017 received “glaringly deficient legal representation” or were denied substantial judicial review.