GRAPHIC: Child killer faces lethal injection
IT WAS one of the most shocking murder cases the United States had ever seen.
Now Billy Ray Irick, the man who raped and killed a seven-year-old girl more than 30 years ago, is finally set to be executed.
Despite his harrowing crimes, some groups are protesting the decision to put the 59-year-old to death.
But the little girl's mother is determined that justice is done.
HOW A YOUNG GIRL WAS BRUTALLY MURDERED
Billy Ray Irick had a troubled upbringing.
According to Knoxville TV station WBIR, he was an uncontrollable child who was regularly tied up and beaten by his parents.
He spent his early years in a mental institution and an orphanage, before eventually finding a job as a dishwasher at a Knoxville truck stop in 1983.
It was here that he met Kenny Jeffers, the father of the little girl who would later lose her life at the hands of Irick.
The pair became friends and Irick eventually moved in with Kenny, his wife Kathy and five of their eight children.
Several of the kids were from previous relationships, but according to Kathy, they were a close-knit family.
"All of the kids were really close and loved each other. There was no 'step' or 'half' brother or sister. They were brothers and sisters from the start," Kathy told WBIR.
Irick became part of the family. He would help take care of the children while Kathy and Kenny worked long hours and overnight shifts.
When the family's house caught fire, he saved two of the boys from the house, and continued living with them when they moved to a nearby neighbourhood.
A DISTURBING PHONE CALL - AND A CONFESSION
On the morning of April 15, 1985, Irick had a fight with Kathy, which ended with her kicking him out of the family home.
Later that day, Kathy had to work the graveyard shift, and her regular babysitter was unable to come in. She told the station she thought Kenny would watch the kids, but he was busy, so he called Billy to come over.
Kathy said she wasn't comfortable leaving the five children in his care.
"I don't know if you call it 'intuition,' but something seemed off about him. I stopped at a payphone and called Kenny at the truck stop and asked him to get back to the house," she told WBIR.
At midnight that night, Kenny received a disturbing phone call from Irick. "It's Paula. I can't wake her up," he said.
Kenny testified that when he arrived, Irick was standing on the porch outside. Paula was unconscious on the floor, covered in blood and not breathing.
He rushed the little girl to the nearby hospital, but she was practically gone by the time they arrived.
The doctors looking after her concluded from her injuries that she had been brutally raped anally and vaginally, with asphyxiation ruled as the cause of death.
One doctor noted that she had been hit in the head and may have been knocked unconscious.
By the time Kathy showed up at the hospital, the girl was gone. She never got to say goodbye.
The following day, the Knoxville Police Department told the public to be on the lookout for Irick.
That evening, he was spotted and arrested beneath the Baxter Avenue bridge.
According to WBIR, police said he was cooperative, remorseful and confessed to the crime immediately. He was 26 years old.
After a six-day trial, a Knox County jury convicted Irick of first-degree murder and two counts of aggravated rape on November 1, 1986.
The judge, John James Duncan Jr, described the incident as the most brutal case in his career.
A jury of eight men and four women sentenced Irick to die in the electric chair, which was scheduled for May 4, 1987.
But over the following decades, the case was postponed during ongoing debates around acceptable methods of execution, and last-ditch appeals including claims of new evidence and testimonies that Irick suffered from mental illness.
CONCERNS OVER IRICK'S EXECUTION
Mental health groups have urged authorities to reconsider the execution.
Last week, a letter was sent by the leaders of the National Alliance on Mental Illness calling on the court to instead give Irick life without parole.
"From all reports, Irick's severe mental illness has continued unabated during his many years of incarceration," reads the letter. "The fact that eight experts, working for both the state and the defence, agree that he suffers from severe mental illness is powerful evidence in support of this point."
The US Court has ruled that people with mental illnesses cannot be executed.
But according to the Nashville Scene, a psychiatrist who interviewed Irick during the trial concluded he did not suffer from mental illness.
A separate group are seeking to block the lethal injection of the convicted killer, saying it could have dire consequences.
Five women who were victims of the deadly 2102 fungal meningitis outbreak have warned that purchasing execution drugs from an unknown unlicensed compounding pharmacy could pose a safety risk to the public, the Tennessean reports.
"Innocent lives are put at risk when compounding pharmacies are permitted to make execution drugs without oversight or scrutiny," the filing warns.
A compounding pharmacy was responsible for the drugs that caused the deadly 2012 virus.
"Compounding pharmacies have repeatedly been found to produce medicines of questionable quality," the filing continues, noting the supplier does not have a licence to supply drugs over state lines.
The briefing notes that it takes no position for or against capital punishment, but does not want to repeat the mistakes of six years ago.
But Kathy - the little girl's broken mother - stands firm. She wants closure, and she wants the world to remember her name.
"All you ever hear about is him. Nothing about her," she said. "What he did to her is the reason he's where he is. I am sick of hearing about his pain and his suffering. What about her pain and her suffering? She was seven years old, raped, sodomised, and strangled to death. I'm sorry, I feel nothing for his pain. Nothing at all. God, forgive me, but I don't."
She says her little girl is more than just a name in a court document.
"She was alive. She's real. She's not just a name on a piece of paper. That's what she is boiled down to now, according to the papers and the courts, is just a name. She is more than that. She is a lot more than that. She still is.
"I don't think Paula can rest in peace until this is resolved. I honestly don't believe she can. Paula needs to rest in peace."
Irick's execution is set for August 9.