NASHVILLE, Tenn. – While he was strapped onto a prison gurney awaiting execution, inmate Steve Henley said he hoped for peace for the family of the couple he was convicted of killing.
And Henley proclaimed, as he had since 1985, that he wasn't guilty of murdering Fred and Edna Stafford and setting their home on fire.
Henley was put to death by lethal injection early Wednesday after exhausting all legal appeals a few of hours before the execution.
"I'd like to say I hope this gives Fred and Edna's family some peace," Henley said in his last statement. "From my experience in life it won't. The death of a family member never brings anything but pain."
Henley talked with his two adult children who were watching from an execution viewing room at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution until he said he could feel the cocktail take effect.
His daughter, Leanne, blew him a kiss, and his son, Gregory, gave a thumbs-up. Henley's sister, Stephanie Worley, and son-in-law also attended.
"Stop that crying," Henley told his family as he playfully stuck out his tongue. "Y'all are a pitiful bunch."
Henley's head then rolled back onto the gurney, and he began to snore.
Stacy Rector, his spiritual adviser of 10 years, led the family's recitation of the Lord's Prayer as they clung to each other. Leanne Henley vomited into a trash can between her feet.
A nephew of the victims also witnessed the execution from a separate room.
About 16 minutes elapsed from the time the procedure began until Warden Ricky Bell pronounced Henley dead at 1:33 a.m. CST. Henley showed no obvious signs of discomfort or pain and took his last breath with what family members called "a smile on his face."
Outside the prison in subfreezing temperatures, 66 death penalty opponents gathered around space heaters and held posters as they protested the execution.
"This has been a long journey for Steve," said Rector, who also serves as executive director of the Tennessee Coalition to Abolish State Killing. "He was very concerned about the Stafford family and left in peace."
Henley was sentenced to death for killing the Staffords, who lived near his farm in Jackson County, about 65 miles northeast of Nashville.
The couple, ages 64 and 67, were found dead in their burned-out farmhouse in 1985. Investigators initially thought their deaths were accidental, but an autopsy concluded both had been shot. The autopsy also found that Edna Stafford was still alive when the fire was set.
The chief witness at the trial was a co-defendant who testified that Henley was drunk, high on drugs and angry over a debt he believed the Staffords owed his grandparents.
Henley blamed the murders on the co-defendant, who served five years in prison and successfully finished parole last year.
Henley's lawyer launched 11th-hour maneuvers to try to delay the execution. But the U.S. Supreme Court and Gov. Phil Bredesen rejected Henley's request to postpone the execution until he could pursue a bid for clemency and have his death sentence commuted to life in prison. Henley's challenge to the state's lethal injection procedures also was turned aside.
Attorney Paul Davidson said Henley was "at peace with where he is" after learning his petitions were denied.
"I told him that I believed he would shortly be in a better place," Davidson said.
Tennessee has carried out five executions since the death penalty was restored in 1976.
After the execution, Gregory Henley read a statement from the family.
"I forgive the state of Tennessee for executing our loving Daddy," he said. "I want them to know I am praying for both our sides of the family and Fred and Edna Stafford's family. But I also want you to know you are executing an innocent man."