Georgia to see first execution in 4 years after clemency request denied

A Georgia man convicted of killing his former girlfriend three decades ago is scheduled to be put to death Wednesday in what would be the state’s first execution in more than four years.

Willie James Pye, 59, was convicted of murder and other crimes in the November 1993 killing of Alicia Lynn Yarbrough. The planned lethal injection using the sedative pentobarbital is set to happen at 7 p.m. at the state prison in Jackson.

In their request for clemency, Pye’s lawyers called the 1996 trial “a shocking relic of the past” and said the local public defender system had severe shortcomings in the 1990s.

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The failures of the local justice system had the effect of “turning accused defendants into convicted felons with all the efficiency of Henry Ford’s assembly line,” Pye’s defense lawyers wrote in their clemency application.

“Had defense counsel not abdicated his role, the jurors would have learned that Mr. Pye is intellectually disabled and has an IQ of 68,” they said, citing the findings of the state’s expert.

Defendants who are intellectually disabled are ineligible for execution. Experts said that Pye meets the criteria, but that the burden of proof in Georgia was too high to reach, his lawyers argued.

This image provided by the Georgia Department of Corrections shows inmate Willie James Pye. A judge on Feb. 29, 2024, signed the order for the execution of Pye, who was convicted of murder and other crimes in the November 1993 killing of Alicia Lynn Yarbrough. (Georgia Department of Corrections via AP)

“They also would have learned the challenges he faced from birth — profound poverty, neglect, constant violence and chaos in his family home — foreclosed the possibility of healthy development,” they wrote. “This is precisely the kind of evidence that supports a life sentence verdict.”

But the Georgia Parole Board rejected those arguments after a closed-door meeting on Tuesday, and denied Pye’s bid for clemency.

Pye had been in an on-and-off romantic relationship with Yarbrough, but at the time she was killed Yarbrough was living with another man. Pye, Chester Adams and a 15-year-old had planned to rob that man and bought a handgun before heading to a party in a nearby town, prosecutors have said.

The trio left the party around midnight and went to the house where Yarbrough lived, finding her alone with her baby. They forced their way into the house, stole a ring and necklace from Yarbrough and forced her to come with them, leaving the baby alone, prosecutors have said.

The group drove to a motel, where they raped Yarbrough and then left the motel with her in the car, prosecutors said. They turned onto a dirt road and Pye ordered Yarbrough out of the car, made her lie face down and shot her three times, according to court filings.

Yarbrough’s body was found on Nov. 17, 1993, a few hours after she was killed. Pye, Adams and the teenager were quickly arrested. Pye and Adams denied knowing anything about Yarbrough’s death, but the teenager confessed and implicated the other two.

The teenager reached a plea agreement with prosecutors and was the main witness at Pye’s trial. A jury in June 1996 found Pye guilty of murder, kidnapping, armed robbery, rape and burglary, and sentenced him to death.

Pye’s lawyers have argued in court filings that prosecutors relied heavily on the teenager’s testimony but that he later gave inconsistent statements. Such statements, as well as Pye’s testimony during trial, indicate that Yarbrough left the home willingly and went to the motel to trade sex for drugs, the lawyers said in court filings.

Lawyers representing Pye also wrote in court filings that their client was raised in extreme poverty in a home without indoor plumbing or access to sufficient food, shoes or clothing. His childhood was characterized by neglect and abuse by family members who were often drunk, his lawyers wrote.

His lawyers also argued that Pye suffered from frontal lobe brain damage, potentially caused by fetal alcohol syndrome, which harmed his planning ability and impulse control.

Pye’s lawyers had long argued in courts that he should be resentenced because his trial lawyer didn’t adequately prepare for the sentencing phase of his trial. His legal team argued that the original trial attorney failed to do a sufficient investigation into his “life, background, physical and psychiatric health” to present mitigating evidence to the jury during sentencing.

A federal judge rejected those claims, but a three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with Pye’s lawyers in April 2021. But then the case was reheard by the full federal appeals court, which overturned the panel ruling in October 2022.

Pye’s co-defendant Adams, now 55, pleaded guilty in April 1997 to charges of malice murder, kidnapping with bodily injury, armed robbery, rape and aggravated sodomy. He got five consecutive life prison sentences and remains behind bars.

Pye is scheduled to be the first person executed in Georgia since January 2020.

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